Assessing What the Media Says: Looking Back at Michigan and Ahead to SuperTuesday

How should we interpret Tuesday’s primary results in Michigan?  It is always useful to compare what the data suggests happened versus what the media reports.   The two narratives do not always agree, as I hope to show in this post.  And that serves as an early warning as we look ahead to the media coverage of Super Tuesday, coming up on March 6.

Media claim #1: Rick Santorum, in losing the Michigan primary to Romney, essentially blew his chance to win this nomination.  That’s the verdict of Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” fame, who reportedly said yesterday:  “If Santorum had beaten Romney in Michigan, it would have shaken the race up … He had his chance. He blew his chance. … I hate to upset people, but the fact is: Romney has all the built-in advantages. [Santorum] had one chance to take him down. And he blew it.”  In the same vein, the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza claims that Romney narrowly averted a defeat that would have essentially ended his candidacy:  “And when Romney needed to win — a loss in Michigan would have crippled his campaign beyond repair (or close to it) — he did.”

Really?  Scarborough and Cilizza would have us believe that if 2% of Romney’s popular vote switched to Santorum, giving Rick the victory at 40%-39%, Romney’s campaign would have ended?  And that for want of that 2% switch, Santorum blew his one chance to beat Romney?  I’m not buying it.  In fact, I believe a narrow Santorum win in Michigan would have made absolutely no difference to the outcome of this nomination contest.  Remember, although Romney beat Santorum 41%-38% in the popular vote, they split Michigan’s 30 delegates, 15 apiece.  Even with an additional 2% in the popular vote, Santorum would still likely have split the delegates with Mitt – and at this point that’s what these contests are all about: getting delegates.

Nor do I see any evidence that Santorum “blew” his chance. In fact, this was his strongest performance to date; he won 377,000 votes and 38% of the popular vote – the best performance for him in any contest so far.  Mitt, meanwhile, did what he’s done all campaign: held his own by virtue of strong support among upper-income, older and more moderate Republican voters, but without showing much evidence that he can expand his coalition.  To his credit, he increased his vote totals and percentage over 2008, when he won with 39% of the vote and with 70,000 fewer votes.  But that increase in votes came from most of the same areas that supported him four years ago.

Media claim #2: Santorum lost this race in the last few days when he shifted the campaign focus from the economy to women’s issues, particularly abortion and reproductive rights. This was a theme trumpeted by more than one news outlet in the days leading up to the Michigan primary, and one that CNN’s Gloria Borger raised during the primary coverage Tuesday night.   In fact, however, Santorum’s support among Republican women has increased since January, and in Michigan, exit polls indicate he won 38% of the men’s votes – and 38% of the women’s vote.  Similarly, Santorum won 38% of the vote by “working women” and 38% of the vote of everyone else.  If anything, it was Romney who suffered from a gender gap – he did 4% better among women than men.  It appears that some of the men’s vote gravitated from Romney to Paul.  The lack of a gender gap based on Santorum’s views toward “women’s issues” should not surprise us – although media pundits continue to insist that views toward issues such as abortion and reproductive rights drive the gender gap in voting, that’s not the case.  Instead, women and men differ much more on issues related to war and peace, and how much the government is responsible for caring for the most vulnerable citizens in society.   Keep in mind that 79% of Michigan voters cited the budget deficit and the economy as the most important issue – only 14% mentioned abortion.   When reporters go on and on about how women are particularly sensitive to debates regarding these issues, I often believe they are more likely voicing their own views, about what they think is true – views reflecting their own socioeconomic status, rather than citing any evidence to support the claim.

But didn’t the polls indicate that Santorum’s support shrank in the last few days before the Michigan primary – just as talk about social issues heated up?  It is true that among the 9% who made up their mind on the day of the election, Romney won 38-31%.  But for those who decided “in the last few days”, Santorum took 43% of the vote, compared to 34% for Romney.  At the very least, those making the social issues claim have to explain why social issues suddenly became prominent among those who decided on the day of the election, but not among those who made up their minds in the last few days before the vote took place.  It may be the case that Santorum lost support because of his conservative social views,  but I’ll need more evidence before I accept this claim.

In the competitive news environment that drives political coverage today, when every outlet struggles to define an outcome in the most newsworthy manner possible in order to capture the viewing audience in any single news cycle, there is a tendency to overstate the significance of each event.  But in an extended nomination fight, no single contest is likely to be a game-changer at this point.  Michigan did not save Mitt’s campaign.  Nor did it doom Rick’s.  It’s important to keep that in mind as we head toward SuperTuesday, when the media hyperbole will undoubtedly reach new heights.  There will be 10 contests on March 6, with 437 delegates at stake – more than have been up for grabs in all the contests so far.  And yet, when the dust settles, we are likely to see a reprise of what just happened last Tuesday:  Wolf Blitzer will begin the night trumpeting the significance of it all,  John King will work the magic board until it malfunctions, Anderson Cooper will wander the stage looking for someone to talk to, the pundits will opine (sometimes accurately, sometimes not), the major candidates will all win a chunk of delegates, Mitt will retain his weak frontrunner status, I’ll pour a glass of scotch, and the race will continue.

Addendum:  Here’s more media hyperbole from Charles Krauthammer on Michigan, the “gender gap” and how Santorum blew it.

Addendum (11:00 p.m.)  I’ve been teaching and grading for most of the day, so I’m late to to this story that a divided Michigan rules committee has decided to award both of Michigan’s at large delegates to Romney. If this survives the inevitable Santorum challenge, it will mean that Romney wins 16 delegates to Santorum’s 14, instead of a 15-15 split.  It won’t change the point of my post, however.

One comment

  1. Matt, it is refreshing to read a sensible analysis. Thanks for taking a break from grading – but watch out about the Scotch.

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