Significantly perhaps, it was Mitt Romney’s old home turf of Oakland County that was most responsible for saving him in the end.
Romney beat Rick Santorum statewide by about 32,000 votes. He won Oakland County, the place where he grew up, by more than 31,000. The other two major metropolitan Detroit counties, Wayne and Macomb, gave him a combined margin of 18,000 more votes.
He lost the rest of the state, but the tri-county area was just more than enough to save him from a defeat that could have destroyed his campaign. Now, Romney is the clear front-runner.
Yet he still has problems. Here’s something odd about Romney’s Michigan victory: Santorum won twice as many counties. And Santorum mostly won those counties which vote Republican in general elections, places like Kent and Ottawa.
Romney won most of the counties likely to go Democratic -- Wayne and Ingham and Washtenaw. Genesee County, which includes Flint, was an exception; it voted for Santorum.
But does this pattern mean that Romney can get votes in places like Detroit that other Republicans can’t get? If so, that’s good news for him. Or does it mean that some traditional Republicans in places like Holland and Grand Rapids are going to have a hard time voting for Romney in November?
The meaning isn’t clear. Oakland County is a place to keep an eye on, however. Once deeply and reliably Republican, it has been voting Democratic for president since the 1990s. Educated, affluent voters there, especially women, are turned off by the hard right’s stand on social issues. That clearly hurt Santorum here.
But Mitt Romney has to know that even in his home state, people don’t seem to be in love with him. Add the votes cast for Newt Gingrich to Santorum’s totals and Romney loses. Add the Ron Paul votes and Romney loses by a landslide. Rick Santorum probably did finish first among those who voted on election day. But Romney had a huge margin in absentee ballots, some of which were cast weeks ago, before Santorum even flitted into the voters’ vision. Romney also spent something like ten dollars for every vote he got; Santorum, barely half that amount.
Romney did win. Yet I keep thinking of that Vietnam War-era saying, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” All the GOP contenders ran a campaign designed to appeal to the hard-edged, right-wing voters who show up for these primaries.
They tried to outdo each other in being most against the so-called bailout that saved the auto industry. As a result, by the end, the polls showed that neither Romney nor Santorum would have any chance to beat President Obama in Michigan today.
Next week, they move on to Super Tuesday, where the most important state is Ohio, a state where there are also a lot of auto workers.
Ohio really matters to Romney, both in the primary and even more so, eight months from now in November. Romney could conceivably lose Michigan this fall, and still become president.
But throughout history, there’s been a word that applies to any Republican presidential nominee who loses Ohio in November.
That word is loser. This race has a long way yet to go.