The only way Michigan could not have hurt Mitt Romney's bid for the GOP nomination was if he surpassed expectations and won big. An eight- or nine-point margin would have shown that Romney wasn't as weak as he looked; as with his win in Florida, in which the former Massachusetts governor won by 14.5 percentage points, it would have assured GOP leaders that despite weeks of bad news and worse performance, Romney can still turn himself around.
Last night, Romney won Michigan with 41 percent of the vote to Rick Santorum’s 38 percent—a narrow win, but a larger margin of victory than polls had predicted. This was a godsend for the former Massachusetts governor. Thanks to the three-point margin, Romney will avoid what would have been a hellish week of terrible media coverage in which pundits questioned the viability of his campaign, donors turned their attention elsewhere, and GOP leaders worked to draft a new candidate into the race in an effort to avoid the disaster of a Santorum nomination. George W. Bush coined “the soft bigotry of low expectations” as part of his pitch for No Child Left Behind, but it applies just as well as to what will happen to Romney in the press. Romney’s small win in Michigan will stand as a big victory because everyone anticipated the opposite.
Still, that the disaster scenario was conceivable is a sign of how far Romney has fallen in the last month. Remember, Michigan was supposed to be an easy victory for Romney, who grew up there and whose father was one of the most prominent politicians the state has ever produced. He won the primary there in 2008 with 38 percent of the vote, and when it became clear that Santorum had a shot at winning, Romney jammed millions of dollars onto the airwaves, swamping Michigan residents with attacks on the former Pennsylvania senator. What’s more, he had help in the form of Santorum himself, whose performance at last week’s debate was lousy, and who proceeded to damage himself with comments on the separation of church and state (he hates it), college education (also hates it), and contraceptives (still hates them).
Despite all of this, Romney barely held on against Santorum even though the former Pennsylvania senator's shoestring operation has been underfunded since the beginning, and he continues to stand as one of the most unpopular politicians in America. Santorum's signature achievement as a public figure is an 18-point drubbing in the 2006 midterm elections, and a name synonymous with things the Prospect can’t print.
While Michigan settled the question of Romney’s place in the Republican presidential primary—he’s still the front-runner—it left a crucial part of the status quo in place: No one knows if Romney can actually appeal to conservative voters. The exit polls from last night suggest that it’s still a long journey for the former Massachusetts governor. Of the 30 percent of voters who described themselves as “very conservative,” half went for Santorum, while 36 percent gave their support to Romney. The only thing that kept Santorum from expanding his margin among those voters was Newt Gingrich, who earned 7 percent of their support. Had he dropped out, there’s no doubt that Santorum would have been the beneficiary.
In addition to his trouble with conservative voters, Romney is also on thin ice with white, working-class voters, who form a core part of the Republican coalition. Santorum did better among every group of voters who make less than $100,000 a year, while Romney cleaned house with higher-income voters, winning 46 percent of those who made between $100,000 and $200,000 and winning 55 percent of those who made $200,000 or more. Romney lost among Protestants, who gave 42 percent support to Santorum, and those who say that the religious beliefs of candidates matter “a great deal”—63 percent broke in favor of Santorum. These results bode poorly for Romney’s performance in the Southern Republican primaries, which will be dominated by conservative, religious, lower-income whites.
Romney’s win in Michigan is, in the end, another data point that supports the key takeaway of his entire candidacy: Mitt Romney is much, much weaker than anyone expected. His campaign performances are poor, his wins are dirty, and—win or lose—he leaves every state with more people who just don’t like him. There are plenty of other presidential candidates for which you could have said the same thing. But for a presidential hopeful, they aren’t the best company.