A Draw in Michigan Won’t Solve Romney’s Problems

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In baseball, a tie goes to the runner. But in presidential primaries, a tie goes against the front runner.

In a matter of hours, America will discover if Mitt Romney can pull out a squeaker in his native state of Michigan. As of this morning, Nate Silver, the whiz-kid of poll-based projections, pegs the state too close to call, with a 55% chance to win and a projected victory margin of just .7%. That suggests that the most likely outcome is one we have long become accustomed to: A near tie. Romney could win by a point or lose by a point. He could split the popular vote, and come out ahead in the delegate count. He could win the popular vote, and split the delegate count. This in American politics in the 21st Century. Decisive victories are elusive.

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Romney will be far better off with a victory than a defeat, but he still may not find much solace in a close victory. At this point in the contest, victory, after all, is not all that matters. He needs to regain the momentum he lost after New Hampshire and Florida. Here are three trends that are likely to continue if Romney just barely holds on in Michigan.

Romney Will Remain Off-Message. Remember Iowa, when Romney had a message squarely focused on the general election: Obama had messed everything up, and Romney knew how to fix it. Those were the days. Today, Romney’s message is more often a defensive one, pointed inwardly at his own party. “I’m a solid conservative — a committed conservative with the kind of principles I think America needs,” he said on Fox News Sunday this week. This is a message that pulls him away from the general election. It has been compounded by other tactical moves that Romney has been making since Iowa. He has tacked right on immigration, which will make winning the west more difficult in a general election, and he has come out hard against big labor, which will make winning independents in the midwest more difficult. Returning to the South for close contests on Super Tuesday will only exacerbate these problems.

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Romney Will Struggle To Raise More Money. Through the end of last year, Romney has raised about 10% of his money in contributions of $200 or less. By contrast, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Barack Obama have brought in about half their money in small checks, a clear sign that they can motivate people to reach for their checkbooks. Though Romney’s total fundraising is respectable, he has a growing problem if the primary drags on without a clear shift in momentum. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, two thirds of Romney money in 2011 came from donors who have already maxed out on the $2,500 limit. They can’t give again. Meanwhile, Romney’s rivals will continue to be able to farm small-dollar supporters.

Romney Will Struggle To Win New Friends. The good news from the new ABC-Washington Post poll released today is that Romney’s net favorability rating is unchanged from September of 2011–33%. The bad news is that his unfavorability rating is climbing as more Americans get to know him. While 31% of the country had a somewhat or strongly unfavorable view of Romney in September, 46% hold that view today. The shift has been recorded in all groups, among Democrats, Republicans and independents. While conservative Republicans can be expected to regroup with Romney, if he wins the nomination, the losses among moderates and independents may be harder to recover from. It’s one thing to be introduced as a winner. It’s another to be introduced as a guy who can’t quite win definitively. And first impressions can linger.

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All this could be solved if Romney surprises the pundits and pollsters, quiets the dissenters and reestablishes his dominance in the race. What he needs is for that party to rally around him, send new money to his campaign, allow him to pivot back to attacking Obama and give him a chance to reintroduce himself to the swing voters who will decide the next election. The last polls close in Michigan at 9 p.m. EST. Stay tuned.