Mitt To Be Tied? Previewing the Arizona and Michigan Primaries

Based on the latest polling data in Michigan, today’s primary there is almost certainly not going to have the ending Mitt Romney likely envisioned when he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination last year.   The very latest Michigan poll shows Romney leading Santorum by 37%-36%, which, in effect, is a tossup.  Given the closeness of the race, the winner may be determined by how many Democrats decide to participate in this open primary, and whether they all go for Santorum.  If they do, he may squeak out a victory.

However, because the bulk of Michigan’s 30 delegates are allocated by winner-take-all in each of the state’s 14 congressional districts, it is quite likely that Romney and Santorum will split the delegate haul pretty evenly no matter who wins the popular vote, although there’s a slight possibility Ron Paul could steal a district.  Three months ago I’m confident that Mitt viewed Michigan, his home state, as solid Romney territory.  Today, he’s hoping to hang on for a win, knowing full well that he’s squandered a chance to pad his delegate lead.

As Jon Bernstein reminds us, however, the news is not likely to be all bad for Mitt tonight.  All indications are that he is going to win Arizona, with the latest polls there having him leading Santorum by about 16%. Unlike in Michigan, Arizona’s 29 delegates are awarded on a winner-take-all statewide basis; you don’t get anything for finishing second statewide or winning congressional districts.    (Note that both Michigan and Arizona saw their delegate totals halved by the Republican Party by virtue of holding their primaries before March 1.)   So, based on delegates alone, Mitt is likely to be the big winner tonight no matter what the Michigan outcome.   Unfortunately for Mitt, given the expectations game, this may not be how the media spins the results.  Instead, it is more likely that in their fixation on the horse race, they will emphasize Mitt’s surprisingly (based on earlier media expectations!)  close race in his home state, and suggest this is another indication of his rather lackluster candidacy.    This will set up the media narrative looking ahead to the March 6 Super Tuesday events, where Mitt is not likely to do very well.  Poor Mitt – even when he wins he loses!   But in truth this is not solely media spin – the fact that Mitt is struggling in a state that he won easily in 2008 with 39% of the vote over the eventual Republican nominee John McCain is a valid indication that Romney is a weak candidate.  So, victory in Arizona notwithstanding, tonight is not going to be all sweetness and light for Mitt.

Given the closeness of the Michigan race, this could be a long night.  Polls close there at 8 p.m. eastern time, but I don’t expect the networks to project a winner for some time.  In Arizona, where polls close at 9 Eastern Time, Mitt should be declared the winner in short order.   As always, I’ll be on for more extended analysis and a live blog later tonight.  Keep in mind that these are the first primaries since Florida at the end of January, and the first events that will actually award delegates since the Nevada caucus.  (All of Santorum’s subsequent “victories” came without any fixed delegates as yet.)  And there are some interesting subplots beyond the delegate haul to discuss. For example, how will Mitt do among Hispanics in Arizona?  What do the exit polls indicate about Mitt’s support among lower-income voters, and among the Tea Party crowd?  Has Santorum’s gender gap widened? Can Ron Paul rally to win any delegates at all tonight?  And, most importantly, how do the media spin the results?

As always, you are invited to join in tonight.  I’ll likely be on closer to 8 p.m., unless exit polls are leaked earlier.

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