Michigan GOP Makes Mitt Romney's Night

Mainstream Republicans accounted for 68 percent of GOP primary voters.

Jan. 15, 2008 — -- Conservatives, mainline Republicans and family history made it Mitt Romney's day in Michigan, underscoring the fractured nature of the 2008 Republican presidential race as he became the third GOP winner in the first three high-profile contests.

In addition to restoring the former Massachusetts governor's fortunes, the outcome underscored Arizona Sen. John McCain's challenges of translating support centered on independents and moderates in a party dominated by conservatives and mainline Republicans. It again showed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to have a weaker lock on evangelicals than he enjoyed in Iowa. And it made former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani look less formidable than ever.

Among other factors, Romney benefited from his roots in the state where he was born and his father, a former American Motors chairman, was governor from 1963 to 1969. Forty-two percent described his family ties to Michigan as at least somewhat important in their vote; he won them by a huge margin, with 58 percent to McCain's 17 percent.

The Independent Voters

In 2000, McCain won the state on a surge of independents and Democrats voting in the GOP contest (that's allowed in Michigan); that year only 48 percent of Republican primary voters were Republicans. This yea,r it didn't happen: Sixty-eight percent of voters were Republican regulars, and they supported Romney by 41-27 percent over McCain, with 17 percent for Huckabee.

McCain won independents by 6 points, but they accounted for just 25 percent of voters, vs. 35 percent in 2000. He also prevailed by 8 points among Democratic crossover voters. But there were fewer of them, too; suggestions that they'd vote in the Republican race given the lack of a real Democratic contest were not borne out. Just 7 percent of GOP voters were Democrats, down from 17 percent in 2000.

Ideology told a similar story: Conservatives upped their share of the turnout to 56 percent, 11 points higher than in 2000, and they, too, went for Romney, 41-23 percent, with 20 percent for Huckabee. McCain won moderates, 40-34 percent; again there were too few.

Economy Casts Heavy Shadow on Michigan

Romney found support on two issues he'd stressed: The economy, which was far and away the most-cited concern (Michigan has the nation's highest unemployment rate); and immigration. Among the 55 percent of voters who called the economy the top issue in their vote, Romney beat McCain by 42-29 percent.

Romney pledged in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club Monday to revive the state's beleaguered auto industry. Perhaps it helped; among voters who made up their minds on Election Day, 16 percent of the total, Romney beat McCain by 41-25 percent. (Romney also won, albeit by less of a margin, among those who decided anytime from the previous three days to a month ago. Earlier deciders were for McCain.)

Among those citing immigration as the top issue (far fewer in number), it was Romney, 39-18 percent. Moreover, among the nearly half of Republican voters who said illegal immigrants should be deported, Romney had 41 percent support, McCain 24 percent.

Michigan Evangelicals Divide

Thirty-nine percent of Republican voters were evangelical Christians, far more than in New Hampshire (23 percent), albeit fewer than the 60 percent evangelical turnout in Iowa, where Huckabee rode their support to victory.

Their vote choice has differed since Iowa: In Michigan, surprisingly, Romney narrowly beat Huckabee among evangelicals, 34 percent to 29 percent, with 23 percent for McCain. In New Hampshire evangelicals divided evenly among all three. In Iowa, by contrast, Huckabee won 46 percent of evangelicals, way ahead of Romney's 19 percent.

Religion remains an important factor in the Republican contest, a wildcard in races ahead. Among Michigan voters who said it mattered "a great deal" that a candidate shares their religious beliefs -- a quarter of the total -- Huckabee won with 37 percent support. Among those who said it mattered, but just somewhat, his support plummeted to 16 percent; among those who said it didn't matter, 4 percent.

The Democratic Race

Noteworthy in the Democratic race were the groups that Hillary Clinton did not win, given that she was the only major candidate on the ballot: African-Americans (30 percent for Clinton, 68 percent uncommitted), independents (37-51), young adults (43-48 among those under 30), higher-income voters (44-50 among $100K plus), postgraduates (44-50) and single men (44-48).

Indeed it was not quite a blowout among all men, with 51 percent for Clinton, 43 percent uncommitted. All have been better groups for Barack Obama.

But more broadly, the Democratic contest is virtually unreadable; given a dispute between the state and national parties over the primary's timing, Obama and John Edwards stayed off the ballot. None of the candidates campaigned, and no delegates were at stake.

The level of the "uncommitted" vote could be taken by some as an expression of anti-Clintonism among people who took the trouble to turn out to cast a symbolic vote against her; on the other hand, it could be that many showed up expecting to see Obama or Edwards on the ballot, and took "uncommitted" as the only alternative.

A question on the exit poll asked Democratic voters who they'd have supported if all the candidates had been listed; Clinton got 46 percent to Obama's 35 percent. But that could have been distorted by the number of Obama or Edwards voters who did know their candidates weren't listed, and so stayed home. All told, tough to read.

Aftershocks of the Bush Administration

The Bush administration was not broadly popular among GOP voters in Michigan: Nearly half say they're dissatisfied or even angry about the administration. (It was about the same, 49 percent, among Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.) Nonetheless, six in 10 Republican voters in Michigan approve of the war in Iraq.

Vote choices in these groups underscore a dichotomy in McCain's support profile. He's the candidate who's most strongly supported the Iraq War and perhaps most closely aligned himself with the Bush administration. Yet his support peaks among opposite groups – those who strongly oppose the war and who are angry with the administration. That underscores the source of his support, more from independents and moderates.

Values Voters

On attributes, picking a candidate who "shares my values" topped the list for Republicans, cited by 44 percent; straight-talking -- "says what he believes" -- follows, cited by 27 percent; 22 percent cited experience, with electability in the single digits.

Romney beat Huckabee among values voters, 34 to 28 percent, with McCain trailing at 17 percent in this group. McCain came back among those looking mainly for a straight-talking candidate, with 42 percent to Romney's 23 percent. Among those focused on experience, Romney beat McCain by 11 points.

Among those who said issues were more important than a candidate's personal qualities -- 57 percent of voters -- Romney beat McCain by 35-22 percent. Among those who gave more weight to personal qualities, by contrast, McCain finished just slightly ahead, 40-36 percent.

Among the trailing candidates, Ron Paul's showing in some groups was notable: He won 24 percent of the youngest voters (age 18-24), 21 percent of those who are angry with the Bush administration and 24 percent of those who disapprove strongly of the war in Iraq.