The Republican presidential nomination remains up in the air after Mitt Romney’s impressive victory in Michigan last night halted the bandwagon of support that had been building around John McCain.
Romney coasted to a comfortable win over McCain, by 39% to 30%, in what many opinion polls had promised would be a much tighter race. But equally impressive was the manner of Romney’s win, with exit polls showing him enjoying strong advantages in key areas within the Republican party.
The former Massachusetts governor won the support of 41% of Republicans voting in the primary – almost twice as many as backed McCain. Romney even won a plurality of voters who support the conduct of the war in Iraq, a surprising result given McCain’s high-profile backing for the war and the "surge" ordered by President Bush.
Most importantly for Romney’s chances in the coming contests, he tied with the former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee – who came third overall, with 16% – for support among evangelical voters, a key voting bloc in the south, where the primary campaign now heads.
Michigan’s result, however, leaves the Republican party in a quandary: with Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire, and now Romney, each with big wins to their name – and with Rudy Giuliani still waiting in the wings – the party appears no closer to settling on two or three firm front runners.
Even Giuliani, by far the most well-known figure in the race, was for the second time beaten by the maverick Texas congressman Ron Paul, who received 6% of the vote in Michigan while the former New York mayor and self-styled hero of 9/11 could only manage a paltry 3%.
Even after the result had been announced, the bruising Republican battle continued late last night. While McCain was in the middle of his televised concession speech – during which the 71-year-old senator described Michigan supporters as "Mexican" – Romney began his victory speech, forcing live television coverage to switch their coverage. The tactic enraged McCain supporters, and relations between the two campaigns remain hostile.
The relief was palpable last night in the Empress Suites hotel in Southfield where Romney and his supporters gathered. They had all been aware that the stakes could not have been higher – defeat in Michigan, the state of his birth, could have been fatal for his presidential chances.
But it leaves the Republican party in a quandary. With Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire, and now Romney each with big wins to their name – and with Rudy Giuliani still waiting in the wings – the party appears close to a state of electoral paralysis.
The former governor of Massachusetts sounded a belligerently populist note in his victory oration, vowing to take the fight to Washington. "Tonight is a victory of optimism over Washington-style pessimism," he said, adding that Washington was worried because "they know that America now understands that Washington is broken and we are going to do something about it."
Romney’s Michigan campaign focused heavily on core Republican values – God, patriotism and tax cutting. He adopted the same mantra of change as heard from Barack Obama, but insisted his version of change was very different.
"Democrats draw their inspiration from Europe of old – big government, big taxes. I take my inspiration from Ronald Reagan and George Bush who take their inspiration from the American people."
In his concession speech, McCain insisted that though the result made his road to the nomination harder he was not deflated. "We’ve gotten pretty good at doing things the hard way, too, and I think we’ve shown them we don’t mind a fight, and we’re in it."
But no words from the senator for Arizona could disguise that his failure to take Michigan – a state he won against Mr Bush in the 2000 primary elections – was a serious body blow for him. Not only does it block any momentum he gained from his New Hampshire victory, but it also points to his inability to enthuse the core of the Republican party upon which the nomination will probably depend.
Exit polls of Republican voters carried out by CNN gave clues as to why Romney stole the prize. More than 40% of Republicans said that his local ties – his father George Romney was a popular governor of Michigan, and Mitt was brought up in the state – were an important factor behind their decision.
A similar proportion, 42% of Republican voters, said that they had chosen Romney because of his stance on the economy compared with only 29% for McCain. That is a more serious disparity for McCain as the economy is rapidly rising up the political agenda as fears of a recession grow.
Strikingly, Romney took 40% of the core Republican vote, against McCain’s 22%. McCain did better among floating voters and independents – but they amounted to a much smaller body of voters.
The results suggest that McCain has an uphill struggle to bring the Republican party faithful into his tent, which could prove to be a major hurdle in states where only party members are allowed to vote.
The Democratic vote in Michigan was spoiled by the fact that all the main candidates besides Hillary Clinton boycotted the election in support of the national party’s protest against the state for bringing the ballot forward into January for the first time in its history.
Clinton took about two-thirds of the votes, despite agreeing not to campaign in Michigan, but strikingly "uncommitted" – the vote used by those Democratic voters who did not support her but had no one else to vote for – amounted to more than 40% of the vote.
That underlined a considerable degree of anger among Democrats in Michigan that they had been stripped of their vote – anger which the national party will have to work hard to assuage if it is to have any hope of taking the state in the national presidential election in November.