Mitt Romney wants to achieve what no Republican presidential candidate has done since 1988: win Michigan.
“I’m going to win Michigan, with your help!” Romney said at a rally yesterday in Frankenmuth, Mich., according to news reports. Romney has reason to believe he has a fighting chance to win the Wolverine State: Two polls released this month showed the gap between him and President Obama to be a mere point, although a third poll, by Rasmussen Reports, gave Obama an eight-point lead.
“The political demographics in Michigan have changed,” says Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP. “We have a Republican governor, a Republican secretary of state, a Republican attorney general, a majority in the state house, a majority in the state senate, as well as a majority in the congressional delegation. I think that there is a real reverse coattails effect, so to speak.”
“Michigan is a purple state that can go red in the right circumstances,” adds Anuzis. “Those kind of independent, Reagan Democrat voters in Michigan tend to truly be independent, will vote either way.”
“[Romney] has a unique ability to really capture the attention of Michigan voters,” says Michigan GOP communications director Matt Frendewey. “He’s from Michigan. He was born here. He was raised here.” That background allows Romney and his wife, Ann (who was also raised in the state), to speak credibly and in detail about their Michigan experiences when on the stump. “There’s a certain authenticity that people appreciate,” Frendewey notes.
But whether that connection will be enough isn’t clear. Republican strategist Greg McNeilly dismisses the idea that Romney’s Michigan roots will play a large role, noting that few in the state would even have been old enough to vote for Romney’s father, former Michigan governor George Romney. He does think that Romney has a “good shot” at winning Michigan — but only if the national winds favor Romney. “In order to win Michigan, he has to be headed toward a 300-electoral-college-vote victory or more,” McNeilly remarks. “Michigan is not going to be an outlier.”
Nor does he see the current crop of Republicans elected statewide as necessarily indicative of a new trend in the state. “We consistently throughout the Nineties elected a slate of Republican statewide officials in state elections. But then the state would go solidly Democratic in the presidential elections,” he comments.
But the Romney campaign is more optimistic. “With Michigan unemployment still at 8.5 percent and over 300,000 Michiganders struggling to find work, it’s no surprise enthusiasm for Governor Romney is growing,” e-mails Romney spokesperson Sarah Pompei. “He’s the only candidate with a plan to get our economy moving and get people back to work, including a revitalized auto industry.”
“We’re going to be competing for every vote in Michigan,” says a Romney aide. “It is an important state in our strategy.” In particular, the campaign thinks that Romney can perform better in the Michigan suburbs than John McCain did.
Nor does it look like Romney’s position on the auto bailouts will necessarily hurt him. “It is clearly the issue that the Democrats will try to demagogue to the best of their ability,” says Anuzis. But he thinks it’s a mistake to assume that everyone was happy with the bailout. “Michigan,” Anuzis speculates, “could be a great bellwether in having a discussion front and center that plays off the privileged bailout for the UAW, and tying it into the Solyndra scandal, and you’ve got yourself a double-edge sword coming into an election where a lot of taxpayers are still picking up the tab and don’t have a job.”
And one GOP operative in the state points out that there’s no guarantee that all Michigan voters who support the bailout will necessarily vote for Obama. Take, for instance, the June EPIC/MRA poll, which showed Romney at 46 percent and Obama at 45 percent. Later in the poll questioning, respondents were asked questions about Obama’s new support for gay marriage and about Romney’s opposition to “having the federal government provide loans to help any of the auto companies avoid bankruptcy.” Asked again then, in light of Obama’s gay-marriage views and Romney’s auto-bailout views, whom they supported for president, 45 percent of the respondees picked Romney and 46 percent Obama. In other words, bringing up Romney’s position on the auto bailouts didn’t really change opinions.
Things are turning around in Michigan, but, for many voters, a much deeper recession isn’t far from their recollection — meaning that there is opportunity for Romney’s jobs and economic message to resonate. “People here, they’ve recognized and they felt the damage of Obama’s economy,” comments Frendewey. “Just two years ago, with a Democratic governor and the president in office, we had nearly 14 percent unemployment. It’s fresh in people’s minds how bad the economy’s been.”
And of course, there might be interest among voters in seeing one of their own reach the Oval Office.
“If I’m lucky enough to become president I’ll be the first president in American history to be born in Michigan,” Romney said, per NBC News. “And I won’t forget Frankenmuth, I won’t forget Michigan, I won’t forget how much I owe to this great state to the people here, I love this state.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.