Why Michigan could be Mitt Romney's make-or-break moment

Mitt Romney trails Rick Santorum in Michigan. Has any presidential aspirant lost their home state primary, yet gone on to win a major party nomination? Since 1972, the answer is no. 

Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the Cuyahoga County Lincoln Day Dinner in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, Thursday.

For Mitt Romney the upcoming Michigan primary is very important. How important? Listening to the punditry on this we’ve heard lots of mythic/historical references – the Feb. 28 vote is Mr. Romney’s D-Day, his Armageddon, his Waterloo, and so on.

We’ll just say it’s a must-win, lest we get bogged down explaining our allusion. Romney grew up in Michigan and won the GOP primary there in 2008.

Given that, let’s run this thought experiment: Has any presidential aspirant lost their home state primary, yet gone on to win a major party nomination?

We’ll look at only races back to 1972, because prior to that, many states didn’t hold primaries. Unsurprisingly, the answer is “no.” Eventual nominees always won the state with which their name was most closely associated.

The Bush family always won Texas, Bill Clinton always won Arkansas, Walter Mondale won the Minnesota primary in 1984, and so forth. Jimmy Carter won the Georgia Democratic primary in 1980. George McGovern won the South Dakota primary in 1982. You can look it up.

A candidate who can’t win over the voters who know them best is likely to be deficient in some aspect, be it message, personal appeal, or campaign efficiency. Plus, it’s an easy stumble for the media to exploit. Even if there’s some good reason why a candidate is no longer a fit for their home state – the state in question has moved several clicks rightward or leftward, for instance – you can be sure the pesky flies of the pundit class will still use it against them.

That’s where Romney is headed at the moment, as he continues to trail Rick Santorum in Michigan. Today the RealClearPolitics rolling average has the former Massachusetts governor behind Mr. Santorum by 8.2 percentage points.

Yes, we see you waving your hand. You want to point out the fly in our argument. As we’ve just noted, Romney was governor of Massachusetts, not Michigan. His campaign headquarters is in Boston, not Detroit. His dad may have run both Michigan and an auto company, young Mitt may have grown up there and attended school there, and (according to Jon Stewart) is even named after Michigan’s mitten-like shape, but he’s not a Michigander. He’s a Massachusian.

We don’t agree, but we’ll accept this for the sake of argument. Romney’s the favorite to win the March 6 Massachusetts primary, too. Santorum’s emphasis on social issues isn’t a good fit for the Bay State.

But here’s the kicker: All major party candidates back to 1972 also won their home states in the general election, with two exceptions. Al Gore lost Tennessee to George W. Bush in 2000, and George McGovern lost South Dakota to Richard Nixon in 1972. Both Vice President Gore and Mr. McGovern lost their White House bids, of course. Neither is someone Romney would like to be linked with.

Yet Massachusetts leans blue, despite current GOP Senator Scott Brown, and right now Romney is far behind President Obama there. A recent WBUR/MassINC survey has Obama over Romney in Massachusetts by a whopping 21 percent.

Flipping back to Michigan, the general-election situation is a touch brighter for Romney, but only a touch. He’s behind Obama in the Wolverine State by merely 16 percentage points, according to a recent PPP survey.

“You Can’t Go Home Again” was the title of one of Thomas Wolfe’s most famous novels. Mitt Romney surely hopes it doesn’t apply to him.

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