Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Michigan in winter

The Michigan primary is a week from today, and according to polling from PPP, the lead that Rick Santorum had a week ago is tightening, but he's still ahead of Mitt Romney.

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.

So there's still a chance that Mr. Romney could win in his nominally home state, but the question among a lot of people is why is it so hard for him to win there?  He should be running away with it.

A lot of it has to do with him and his campaign, of course.  Heretofore the GOP electorate has been about as interested in Mr. Romney as they are to expired yogurt, and the more he tries to sell himself as a true conservative, the less they're interested.  Rick Santorum is cruising in a lot of areas where his medieval views on social issues resonate.  (That said, they resonate as long as they're in the third person: women have no rights to their own bodies and gay people should be thrown in jail until the woman that needs pre-natal care is your wife or daughter, or the gay kid is your son who is getting the snot kicked out of him for being a sissy done to the tune of Lady Gaga.)

But there's another element that explains Mr. Santorum's hold on Michigan.  Once you get out of the five counties that comprise the Detroit metropolitan area (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Monroe, and Washtenaw), you're in a different place.   It's a beautiful state with forests and hills and sparkling lakes and miles of open country; even in winter you cannot escape the beauty of the nature and the breathtaking sight of the Great Lakes that surround the peninsulas.  But it's also a tough place to make a living.  As you head upstate towards the Upper Peninsula, it becomes more and more apparent.  My parents, who spent nearly twenty years living in northern Michigan in the 1980's and 90's, were witness to it, as my mom noted in an e-mail last week: "The rural poor are as destitute as those living in the inner city ghettos.  They live in run-down trailers or shacks with falling-in roofs supplied with well water that might be polluted by run-off from pesticides used in the orchards and often little or no heat.  House fires from heat provided by a lamp or candles are common.  If there are jobs to be had they are summer ones in the orchards or cleaning up after the down-state vacation cottage owners.  When Fall comes they go back on unemployment until that, too, runs out.  It’s a way of life."

I also spent a number of years in northern Michigan (Frankfort and Petoskey), and I saw it every day.  The hard winters go along with the hard choices of an economy based on agriculture, tourism and the whims of rich people who live hundreds of miles away.  When he wrote Let Detroit Go Bankrupt, Mr. Romney didn't think of the thousands of people in the rest of the state who rely on the auto industry for more than just jobs.  Little companies in places like Frankfort and Benzonia that make electrical relays for power windows rely on the auto industry, as do the stores and businesses that rely on their employees.  So it's no wonder why he would have little appeal to voters in the rest of the state.  He reminds them too much of the guy who owns the 5,000 square foot summer cottage in Harbor Springs or Marquette and drops $500 on wine and cheese at the seasonal gourmet shop on M-22.  Rick Santorum, with his hard-wired simple answers for life's complicated questions and his distrust of "the Others" is more to their life and liking.

Mitt Romney could still pull off a win in Michigan, but if he does, it won't be because the Republicans in Petoskey or Escanaba decided his name and his nostalgia for trees of the right height was the winning combination.  It will be because the Republicans in Grand Rapids and Grosse Pointe outnumbered them.

(Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.)

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