Could Democrats Help Swing Michigan for Santorum?

Could Democrats Help Swing Michigan for Santorum?

By Scott Conroy - February 27, 2012

To an inattentive listener, the 30-second phone message that went out to about 80,000 Michiganders last week might have sounded like a standard robo-call made on behalf of Rick Santorum's campaign.

"Please Press '1' if you are committed to voting for Rick Santorum in next week's GOP primary," said a recorded voice in the call. "Vote Rick Santorum on Tuesday, February 28."

But the calls were issued not by supporters of the conservative Republican White House hopeful but by Joe DiSano, a Democratic operative in the state to whom the idea of Santorum actually becoming president is both implausible and unpalatable.

“Democrats can help embarrass Mitt Romney and expose him as the weak front-runner that he is by supporting Rick Santorum on Tuesday,” DiSano said in the robo-call, revealing its intent.

Inspired by Michigan’s storied history of cross-party mischief-making, DiSano’s efforts are at the forefront of an ad hoc effort to take advantage of the state’s open primary rules, which allow Democrats to vote in the Republican contest.

He and other Michigan Democrats hope to humiliate Romney and perhaps extend his battle with Santorum in a manner that could weaken the eventual nominee.

Similarly devious operative-led efforts were credited with helping segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace to win the 1972 Democratic primary in Michigan and helping underdog John McCain defeat George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican contest.

And in 2008, Democratic state Rep. Lamar Lemmons encouraged members of his party to vote for underdog Mike Huckabee in order to deny McCain a victory and prolong that race (Romney ended up winning Michigan in that year’s GOP primary).

While there is little data to illuminate the impact that such inter-party meddling, DiSano has been encouraged by the approximately 12,000 state Democrats who he says pressed “1” to indicate that they would indeed vote for Santorum on Tuesday.

Additionally, DiSano says he sent an email to about 45,000 Democrats containing a piece he penned for The Huffington Post last week. In it, he laid out the reasons they should vote for someone whose political ideology is likely the polar opposite of their own.

“Any effort like this is really a sideshow unless you have an incredibly weak front-runner like Romney,” DiSano said. “If we can highlight Romney’s inherent weakness . . . I say we have to take that opportunity.”

But DiSano admits that he devised his scheme relatively late in the game and that his efforts were not especially well organized.

By contrast, leading Democrats’ attempt to encourage party members to vote for McCain in the 2000 primary was better planned and more aggressive.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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