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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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On the Michigan Results

Romney's victory last night was decisive. Let's dig into the exit poll results a little bit to see how he pulled it off.

First off, Romney won in Michigan the same groups he won in New Hampshire. The difference was that he won them by wider margins. Consider:

- In New Hampshire, Romney won voters who support the Bush administration, 37% to 32% for McCain. In Michigan, he improved upon that margin, 45% to 24%.

- In New Hampshire, he split Republicans with McCain, 35% to 34%. In Michigan, he won them decisively, 41% to 27%.

- Independents went for McCain last night, 35% to 29%. But they went for him more strongly in New Hampshire, 40% to 27%. Plus, Independents made up just 25% of the vote last night, compared to 37% in New Hampshire.

- In New Hampshire, Romney won those who identified themselves as "very conservative," 43% to 18%. In Michigan, he won them, 48% to 11%.

- Romney improved upon his support among those who identified themselves as "somewhat conservative." McCain won them in New Hampshire, 38% to 35%. In Michigan, Romney won them, 35% to 32%.

But not all the news is fantastic for Romney.

Last night, the McCain campaign was spinning its loss as a consequence of the fact that Romney is a "favorite son." There is evidence to support this claim. 42% of respondents in the exit poll reported that Romney's ties to the state were important factors in their vote choice. Romney won those voters decisively, 58% to 17%. Meanwhile, 56% of voters said that his ties to the state were not important factors. Interestingly, McCain won those voters, 39% to 23%.

I think this data should induce restraint. We should be careful not to over-interpret these results. Clearly, Romney's win was decisive enough to keep him in the race. But it is also clear that he received a sizeable boost from his ties to the Wolverine State. How much of a boost - we cannot know for sure. Accordingly, we cannot say whether these results are an omen of things to come.

Another factor of critical importance in Romney's victory was the economy. Romney's message in the last few days was tailored to the economic concerns of Michigan. It seemed to work. In New Hampshire, McCain won voters who said the economy was their most important concern, 41% to 21%. In Michigan, Romney won them, 42% to 29%.

This probably gives the Romney team some insight on what to say next - perhaps this economic message will work in the other states. John McIntyre's essay from December seems prescient to me now: with Huckabee on his right flank, and McCain on his left - Romney can run as the down-the-middle conservative. His message? The economy.

Of course, Michigan voters were more concerned about the economy than others. For instance, 31% of New Hampshire exit poll respondents listed the economy as their primary concern, but in Michigan it was a whopping 55%. And, what is more, Romney's appeal on the economy might be limited to Michigan. He ran on an explicit promise to revitalize the auto industry.

I wonder if there is a connection here. Does Romney's specific, auto industry pitch connect his Michigan ties to his strength on the economy? Was the average Michigander thinking, "I'm concerned about the economy - and I'm voting for Romney because I know he won't forget us!" This would be an easy hypothesis to test if the networks provided raw data - which they don't. So all we can do is speculate.

We can approach the economy issue from another angle. According to the exit poll, Romney won areas outside metro Detroit, 35% to 33%. He won metro Detroit, 42% to 29%. Most of his strength came in Oakland and Macomb counties. The exit poll reports that he took them 46% to 28%. In 2000, McCain beat Bush in Oakland and Macomb - 50% to 45%. Metro Detroit is the area hardest hit hit by the auto slump - and thus most susceptible to Romney's economic appeal.

What can we conclude from this? Clearly, Romney won a decisive victory. Just as clearly, some portion of this win was due to his special connection with the state as well as its special economic circumstances. Unfortunately, it is not possible to quantify exactly what portion this was. Thus, I think the fair conclusion is that Romney's win keeps him viable moving forward, but it probably does not give him any special advantage. As Tom Bevan has pointed out on the RCP Blog - the same can be said for Huckabee's win in Iowa and McCain's win in New Hampshire. They were, in many respects, consequences of "specialty" appeals that are not necessarily generalizable. I think the same goes for Romney's victory last night.

A final point on the Republican results. The exit polling data offers some counter-intuitive evidence about who is being helped by the conduct of the Iraq war. In New Hampshire, Romney won voters who approve of the Iraq war, 37% to 33%. McCain won those who disapprove, 44% to 19%. These basic results were replicated in Michigan. Romney won approvers, 42% to 27%. McCain won disapprovers, 36% to 29%.

These results are, I think, a blow to the idea that McCain did so well in New Hampshire because of the surge in force levels. They also may foretell trouble for McCain in South Carolina - even though he was an early and strong supporter of the surge, he does not seem to be getting a great deal of credit for it.

As for the Democratic side - the big story is Hillary Clinton losing the African American vote to "uncommitted." The exit poll pegged African Americans going against Clinton, 68% to 30%. It appears that opposition by African Americans induced a split in Wayne County (where Detroit is), 50% to Hillary, 45% to uncommitted. People in the media are going to connect these results to the racial kerfuffle of the last few days - and they are partially right to do so. But I think there is more to it than this. Since his Iowa victory, Obama's numbers among African American voters have been trending upward. Tonight's results are another indication that African Americans are breaking his way. The Clinton campaign should be worried about this. It appears as if Obama might be able to take an important part of the traditional Democratic coalition. He is thus moving beyond the relatively narrow appeal of previous "insurgent" Democratic candidates like Bill Bradley and Gary Hart. This is bad news for Clinton.

-Jay Cost