Up in the Air

Rick Santorum is no longer a favorite for the Michigan primary, but he’s not a goner either. Mitt Romney’s onslaught of attacks—as well as a mediocre debate performance on part of the former Pennsylvania senator—haven’t been enough to dislodge his position with the state’s Republican voters. Five polls released today show a close race; a Public Policy Polling survey released last night showed Romney with a small lead over Santorum, 39 percent to 37 percent, a Rasmussen survey has the race at 38 percent to 36 percent, and a new We Ask America poll shows a somewhat larger lead, at 37 percent to 33 percent.

On the other end, a new survey from the American Research Group shows Santorum with a slight lead at 36 percent to 35 percent, while a Mitchell Research/Rosetta Stone poll shows Santorum with a larger margin, at 37 percent to 35 percent. Nate Silver still gives Romney a 64 percent chance of winning the primary, but the fact is that a boost of momentum for Santorum could close that gap by tomorrow.

It’s hard to say what happens if Santorum wins (or narrowly loses). Despite the constant hype, the odds are low that a “savior” candidate will enter the race. Whether they like it or not, Republicans will have to choose from the existing candidates for their nominee, or risk angering GOP voters who would like to think that their votes counted for something.

One possible scenario for a post-Michigan race is that Rick Santorum continues to pick up the most votes with big wins in small states, and narrow losses in large ones, while Mitt Romney continues to win the most delegates. In which case, both candidates would have a legitimate claim to the nomination, and a choice in either direction could alienate large portions of the Republican Party.

In other words, Republicans should hope for a big Romney victory tomorrow. It’s unlikely, yes, but at the moment, it seems like one of the few things that could prevent a genuine schism in the party.