After John McCain’s 5-point victory over Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, pundits and the broadcast media immediately characterized Michigan as a “do or die” state for Romney. A Romney loss to McCain (at the time the predicted winner of Michigan), it was argued, would have three negative effects.
First, McCain would be the first candidate in the GOP race to win back-to-back contests, giving him enough momentum to break away from the tightly packed Republican field. McCain has already done this (for the moment) nationally: a new CBS News / New York Times national poll gives McCain a 33 to 18 percent lead over Mike Huckabee, followed by Rudy Giuliani at 10 percent, Romney and Thompson at 8 percent, and Ron Paul at 5 percent. This 15-point margin is the largest lead by any GOP candidate since Giuliani held a 16-point lead in a Fox News poll in mid-November two months ago.
Secondly, a Michigan loss by Romney would be a big disappointment considering it is the state of his childhood, and the state in which his father served as Governor in the 1960s. New Hampshire was characterized as another Romney ‘home state’ by the media because of its proximity to Massachusetts as a means to explain his strong polling numbers in the Granite State throughout the year (an explanation, by the way, not commonly invoked to account for Barack Obama’s strong performance in Iowa—a neighbor to his home state of Illinois). But Michigan is a true ‘home state’ for Romney, and a poor performance—though not necessarily a second place performance—would be a blow to his campaign.
Thirdly, it is believed Romney needs to win somewhere (and, for the media, Romney’s overwhelming Wyoming Caucus victory does not count). The media believes a string of second-place finishes by Romney in high-profile contests will signal to Republicans nationwide that he can’t win, and therefore his support will drop and he’ll need to drop out.
There are several reasons, however, why Michigan will not spell the end of the Romney campaign. First, the media vastly overestimated the sustainable bounce McCain would get in Michigan from the New Hampshire win (though he did get one nationally). Romney leads in 4 of the 7 current statewide polls there, including Mitchell Research’s tracking poll, which finds the state trending to Romney (6 points down to McCain three days ago, Romney is now up by 2 points). Romney is poised to win his home state, but, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose he comes in a close second.
A close second-place finish would then mean what exactly? For one thing, it would mean Romney lost to a candidate in two consecutive contests where McCain scored big victories in 2000 (NH and MI).
And why would this (third) ‘silver medal’ spell the death of the Romney campaign more than, say, that of Huckabee, Giuliani, or Thompson? If McCain wins Michigan it is likely he will perform very strong in South Carolina—also considered “must-win” states by the media for the Huckabee and Thompson campaigns. McCain already leads the GOP field in the last two surveys in South Carolina—by 3 points in the latest Rasmussen poll and by 7 points in the latest Fox News Poll.
But if that media prediction is true, and either Huckabee or Thompson is knocked out of the race after South Carolina, will their votes necessarily go to McCain? The truth is, it is not known what will happen to the Republican field as other candidates falter, and Romney has the money to stick around to find out. Romney has already shown he can turn in strong performances in the West, the Midwest, and the Northeast. If he gives strong showings in South Carolina (where he is polling in third at 16 percent) and Florida (where he is polling just one or two points off the lead, within the margin of error), there is every reason to believe Romney will stay in the race as it shows he can turn out voters in all four parts of the country.
Additionally, Super Tuesday (February 5th) offers Romney some Western states in which he should perform quite well (Utah and Montana and perhaps Alaska and North Dakota). If Huckabee or Thompson remains in the race, one of them will probably deny McCain and Giuliani victories in southern states such as Tennessee (Thompson’s home state), Arkansas (Huckabee’s home state), Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, and perhaps even Missouri). If McCain and Giuliani split several of the bigger Super Tuesday states (New York, California, New Jersey, Illinois), then there will be no decisive winner on Super Tuesday, permitting Romney to continue his campaign even past that date.
Even though Romney, who was considered to be a longshot during most of 2007, has outperformed what most pundits would have predicted a year ago, the media (and, most probably, the candidates) seem to resent the amount of money Romney is spending on the campaign relative to the other GOP hopefuls. This may be what is driving the energy by the media to set up artificial ‘do or die’ deadlines for Romney to exit the race.