The Michigan Presidential primary is like that scene in Star Wars (kind of)

Feb 3, 2012

On Fridays, Rick Pluta, Lansing Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, and I have been taking a look at state politics, we’ve been trying to dig a little deeper beneath the week's political news. And, it sure seemed like one story, in particular, was making all the headlines this week.  Headlines like, “Romney Rebounds with Victory in Florida,” and, “Where Has the Newt-Mentum Gone?”

Just like Star Wars… (Well, sort of)

This week’s 2012 GOP Presidential primary storyline got us thinking about that classic scene from Stars Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi where Princess Leia and Han Solo have been captured by Jabba the Hutt and Luke Skywalker tries to come to their rescue. Things don’t go as planned and Luke ends up captured, too. Trying to gauge the severity of the situation Han asks Luke, “How are we doing?” Luke answers, “The same as always.” Han, with his characteristically dry sense of humor, responds, “that bad, huh?”

“Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and crew sort of made us think of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, coming into the Michigan primary – which is now just about three weeks away – and Gingrich almost seems to be in a position of ‘now, I’ve got them exactly where I want them.’ You know, he’s an underdog, the odds are stacked against him… what Gingrich, Santorum and Paul all seem to be fighting is this aura of inevitability that is surrounding Romney,” Pluta explains.

Okay, so maybe it’s not an exact parallel but Pluta and I, at least, had a reason to watch some scenes from Star Wars. (And, just as a side note, there’s quite a bit in the Star Wars movies that can be compared to American politics. But, that’s a whole different story for a whole different time).

“A couple of weeks is a long time in American Politics.” – Peter Jennings

That well-known saying from Peter Jennings is something I always try to remember as I’m listening to or reading the latest from the political pundits. Yes, Romney surely seems to have the “Big-Mo” (the all-important “momentum” that Pluta and I have discussed before) coming out of Florida, but, let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a minute, shall we? Pluta explains that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there are some reasons that Romney could have a difficult time winning the Michigan primary:

  1. You’re NOT the boss of me: Michigan voters tend to not like being told for whom they should vote. It’s that oppositional behavior in us all, I guess. “Michigan, historically, has voters who are fickle, who don’t like being told what to do before they do it,” Pluta explains. This could mean that the more Romney acts like he’s got Michigan wrapped up, the less Michigan voters will actually want to vote for him. Or, they might get the impression that their vote isn’t important because he already has so much support.
  2. Conservatives and the Tea Party: “We have a very active Tea Party movement,” in Michigan, Pluta notes, “The vast majority of Republicans… in Michigan identify themselves as Conservative and Romney has had a hard time capturing the hearts of Conservatives.” That could mean a more Conservative candidate, like Rick Santorum, could be an alternative to Romney for some Republican voters here in the state.
  3. No Winner-take-all in Michigan: Unlike Florida’s winner-take-all delegate system (in which the winner of the primary – in this case, Mitt Romney – won all of the state’s delegates) Michigan has a different system. “Michigan is the only state in the primary calendar that is a hybrid apportionment state which means that any candidate who gets more than 15 percent will be allotted a certain number of statewide delegates… Part of our system is also a winner-take-all Congressional district primary system – three delegates [are awarded] per district [won],” Pluta explains. So, if Gingrich, or Santorum or Paul wanted to they could focus in on just a few Congressional districts that they believe they could win. It’s believed that Southeast Michigan will likely go to Romney, but more conservative parts of the state, parts of West or Northern Michigan, for example, could swing to Santorum if he spent enough time campaigning there. “So, even if you don’t win [statewide] you can still play respectably on Romney’s home-turf,” Pluta notes.

Could the Democrats “spoil” the primary?

There’s also this idea that Democrats could try to so-call "spoil" the February 28th primary. Meaning Democrats would, come Primary Day, decide to show up at the polls and vote for a Republican candidate who isn't doing so well in statewide polls. They could vote for Representative Ron Paul, for example, in order to keep Romney’s percentage of the overall statewide vote lower than it would have been without their vote. Or, Pluta explains, “maybe, [the voters] could hedge their bets… Certainly, I’ve spoken to a couple of Democrats who’ve said that they’re considering a vote for Mitt Romney because they are very concerned about the prospect of a Newt Gingrich presidency. And, so, they could step over to the Republican primary and vote for the least objectionable Republican.”

Spoiling the election: Remember 2000

For anyone who thinks that nefarious things like “spoiling” an election don’t happen in Michigan politics, all you have to do is remember back to the 2000 presidential primary. Then-Governor George W. Bush and Senator John McCain were running against each other in Michigan and many Independents and Democrats voted in the Republican primary for McCain. And they were, “handed some measure of credit for dealing George W. Bush… a setback on his road to the nomination. I’ve talked with some pollsters and about a third of the people who voted in the Michigan Republican primary in 2000 were not Republicans. We don’t know for sure how many of them were Independents who decided that year to vote for a Republican, we don’t know how many of them were Democrats who were making mischief, but, we know that some of them were Democrats and even if you cut that number in half, that means one in ten, maybe three in ten, voters in the 2000 Michigan Republican primary were Democrats,” Pluta notes.