Can it really be called a win if you have to struggle to beat Rick Santorum?
New Public Policy Polling (D) numbers of Michigan show the former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney closing the gap on Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania, as the February 28th vote approaches — Santorum gets 37 percent in the new numbers to Romney’s 33, while Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) sees 15 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is down to 10 percent. But the real question is why Romney remains in this position, still fighting at a point in the race when he was supposed to be cruising to victory?
The trends that have surfaced over the 2012 cycle to date have become starkly apparent in the Great Lakes State. Romney’s appeal with the right of the GOP is still minimal — and it sends party faithful looking for someone who will carry the conservative mantle.
Santorum’s advantage over Romney seems to be a reflection of voters being more comfortable with where he is ideologically. 48% of voters think Santorum has more similar beliefs to them, compared to only 32% who pick Romney on that question. 63% of primary voters think Santorum’s views are ‘about right’ compared to only 42% who say that for Romney. 37% believe that Romney is ‘too liberal.’
Santorum is also well liked by the Michigan GOP electorate: 67 percent of Republican primary voters have a favorable opinion of him, while 55 percent think the same about Romney. These two numbers are likely interrelated — pollsters often say that Americans make their decisions between candidates by choosing the one that’s closest to their ideological center. In Romney’s case, that’s an attribute in the general election and a detriment in the primary.
Consequently, it seems as though Romney’s reputation as a “flip-flopper” from everything from abortion to his embrace of Republican icon President Ronald Reagan has done more than just inflict near-term damage — it’s created a very soft image of Romney’s conservative credentials in GOP voters’ minds.
It remains to be seen whether Romney can tamp down that hesitance amongst Republicans, either with the sort of barrage of TV ads as he’s done to Gingrich (twice), or thanks to the stumbles of Santorum.
Yet Romney also seems to be benefiting from a consensus among Republicans that he’ll eventually be the nominee. National CNN polling from last week showed that while Santorum’s wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri on February 7th have propelled him to the top of the pack, 55 percent of Republicans still thought Romney would eventually pull it out.
But while Romney’s improvement in Michigan means he may be headed for victory there, his struggles in the state continue to reinforce the central challenge of his candidacy: He may be dragging reluctant conservatives over to vote for him, but he still hasn’t convinced enough Republicans that he’s a conservative, too.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.