The Implications of the Michigan GOP Primary Results

by on January 16th, 2008

The results of yesterday’s GOP primary in Michigan have huge implications for the presidential race.

Mitt Romney’s win means he has climbed back into the race as the third Republican candidate to win a major nominating contest. It also virtually assures that he will remain in the race indefinitely and that a GOP nominee will not emerge any sooner than Super Tuesday. Romney now has some of the momentum that had been eluding him before.

He had pulled his ads in Nevada and South Carolina to concentrate on Michigan but he will now put them back up. He is the only GOP candidate who has a great deal of organization in Nevada and is likely to win that state’s caucuses on Saturday. He might well be competitive in South Carolina’s primary that same day and in Florida’s primary 10 days later. After that, he has the resources to compete in every Super Tuesday state if he wants to. No other Republican candidate has that option.

On Super Tuesday, he will be a prohibitive favorite in Massachusetts and Utah and will have a decent shot at winning states like California, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, Connecticut, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Delaware, and Alaska. Not all of the states are winner-take-all, so he could pile up delegates even from states that he doesn’t win. Remember that once Super Tuesday rolls around, the race will be all about delegates. Beyond that point, Romney could ultimately win the nomination through a long battle of attrition if no one else is able to nail it down first.

John McCain’s loss means he was not able to carry his New Hampshire momentum into Michigan. Although McCain claims Romney’s win should have been expected due to his “home field advantage,” Michigan was a state that many felt McCain should have won. In fact, shortly after his New Hampshire victory, McCain himself predicted that he would win in Michigan. Eight years ago, Michigan was one of only a handful of states that McCain was able to win in his failed quest for the nomination.

If he is to win the nomination this time, he will create a rare situation in which a candidate loses a given state in a successful nomination that he won in an unsuccessful bid for the nomination. I can only think of one example in which this has happened before. In 1980, George H. W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa, but Reagan ultimately won the nomination. However, Bush placed third in Iowa in 1988 but won the nomination that time.

In 2000, independent voters helped McCain win Michigan. They voted in his favor this time as well, but unfortunately for him, they didn’t come out in the kind of numbers that they did in 2000. That had to be disappointing, as he was counting on a large number of independents voting Republican since the Democrats were conducting a meaningless primary. The lower number of independent voters voting Republican also highlighted McCain’s weakness with Republican voters. In the 2008 contests conducted so far, he has failed to get a majority, or even a plurality, of those voters in any state — even in New Hampshire, where he won. Going forward, this will be a problem for him unless he can turn those numbers around. Most of the states still to come have closed primaries and caucuses, which are open only to registered Republicans.

McCain got a rather large bounce in momentum coming off his win in New Hampshire. This created a very positive effect for him both in the South Carolina polls and in the national polls. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this will now be negated by his disappointing Michigan loss.

Mike Huckabee had once hoped to be competitive in Michigan, but will settle for a distant third-place finish — his second in a row after his big win in Iowa. Huckabee didn’t spend a whole lot of time or resources in Michigan, as he is looking to South Carolina for his next big win. One consolation is that Romney won Michigan, likely slowing McCain’s momentum going into South Carolina. Had McCain won, Huckabee’s task of defeating him in South Carolina would have been much more difficult. McCain looks to be Huckabee’s chief rival there, although Romney and Fred Thompson look to put up strong showings.

Huckabee is depending on a heavy turnout by evangelical Christians in South Carolina, where they are more numerous than they are in Michigan. He will need to keep a strong majority of them to himself. Should someone like Thompson lure a sizeable portion of them into his camp, it could dilute Huckabee’s vote and throw South Carolina to McCain.

Once again, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani finished at the back of the pack. However, Thompson is banking on South Carolina to pump life into his campaign. It will be put-up-or-shut-up time for him. Meanwhile, Giuliani is still staking his hopes on Florida.

Terry Mitchell