Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.
Did Mitt Romney win the Michigan primary? Or did he merely survive it? That really depends on your perspective.
As recently as a few days ago, Romney was trailing in the polls. And as recently as Tuesday afternoon, Romney staffers were talking down expectations. But Romney won a clean victory on Tuesday night. He won handily in the Detroit metro area, his home turf, but he also ran strong in more contested counties, like Livingston and Jackson, to the west.
But why was it ever this close? Romney had superior money, organization, and, for a long time, name recognition. This state ought to be friendly to him — not because of his family ties, which were never as important as pundits assumed, but because the economy is the biggest issue in Michigan and Romney bills himself as the candidate best positioned to deal with it. Instead, Romney had to fight off an insurgency from Rick Santorum, who appealed to economically strapped voters by appealing to their cultural values.
Romney succeeded, but the exit polls suggested a familiar class divide. Romney won among voters who attended at least some college and those making more than $100,000 a year. But he lost among voters who attended no college and among those making less than $100,000 a year.
As New York Times economics guru and Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt tweeted, if you genetically engineered the typical Romney voter, it was a single Catholic woman who was older than 65 and with a household income of more than $100,000.
I think I met that woman, or at least some real-life versions of her, over the course of my interviews this past week. At campaign events and then on Tuesday, outside a polling place in Jackson, I met plenty of Romney supporters. And most of them made cogent arguments for why they liked him: He understood business, could turnaround the economy, and seemed more likely to win over moderate voters in the campaign to oust President Obama.
But, as best as I can recall, every single one of them — and I mean every single one — was either a small business owner, a professional, or a reasonably affluent retiree. The closest I came to a working-class or poor Romney supporter was a man in work boats and a denim jacket that I spotted at rally in Albion Monday. But it turned out he, too, owned a small business selling farm equipment. I had assumed my reporting sample was just unscientific. The exit polls suggest it wasn't so unrepresentative after all.
In a Republican primary, or at least this Republican primary, you can prevail by losing among all voters making less than $100,000. But it's tougher in the general election. Romney and his advisors can take comfort in the fact that the downscale conservatives who voted for Santorum will generally support the Republican nominee, whoever it is. They may not love Romney, but they hate Obama, and that will be enough to get them to the polls. Still, Romney has to win over at least some middle class votes to win in November. And he's shown very little ability to do that.
Which brings us to the other guy who was making a play for Michigan votes this week — although he was doing it from Washington. I'm talking about Obama, who gave a fiery speech to a meeting of the United Auto Workers on Tuesday.
By now, if you read this space, you know all about the auto bailout — and why it's likely to help Obama's reelection campaign, in Michigan and more contested rust belt states like Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. But, as Greg Sargent observed, "Obama used the auto-bailout argument as a jumping off point for his larger case." It wasn't just about saving the automakers or even the Midwest. It was about taking action to fix the economy — and about taking the side of working Americans.
The speech included a direct shot at Santorum, who talks about working class values. But mostly it was a shot at Romney, on biography and on policy. As Steve Benen put it,
The surface-level trouble facing Romney is that he comes across as an out-of-touch, plutocratic elitist. The just-below-the-surface trouble is that Romney, if elected, intends to help other out-of-touch, plutocratic elitist, while making life significantly tougher on those working families who are already suffering.
A recent poll from Democracy Corps warned Democrats not to be overconfident — and, my goodness, they shouldn't be. The economy is stronger but not strong. Obama's poll numbers are higher but not high. But the same poll suggested that Obama's message on the middle class was working, while other surveys have shown, clearly, average voters are unlikely to think Romney is on their side. And, as my colleague Alec MacGillis notes, Romney did almost everything he could in the last week to reinforce that perception.
If Romney becomes the nominee, as seems likely, he could certainly win in November. But he won't have an easy time of it. That's the message Michigan sent on Tuesday.