Michigan Microcosm

We’ll obviously be hearing a lot from and about Michigan over the next twelve days, thanks to the state’s February 28 presidential primary, and the focus it will bring to Michi-centric issues like the relationship of the federal government to the auto industry.

A Michigan focus will also inevitably lead to greater scrutiny of Mitt Romney’s personal story as a Michigan native whose father was not only an auto executive in a very different era, but later the prototypical moderate Republican politician–precisely the kind of politician Mitt set out to be when he started running for office in the 1990s.

Mitt’s roots in the state, his ambivalent relationship with “Detroit” as a city and as a cultural symbol, and the sense you get that Michiganders are kind of “on to his game” having watched him more closely than most Americans others in his permutations, are all factors that could magnify the impact of the primary’s results here. That’s particularly true if Romney, with all his advantages, manages to lose.

But win or lose in the primary, Romney’s not looking good in Michigan as a prospective Republican nominee. A new PPP poll of Michigan shows Barack Obama trouncing Romney by a 54-38 margin in the state. Tom Jensen succinctly explains what’s happened to Romney to make his native state virtually unwinnable for him in a general election:

Romney’s seen a major decline in his personal favorability in the state over the last 6 months from 39/43 to now 29/58. His numbers have dropped across the board but the most striking shift is with independents. He’s gone from a +14 spread with them at 48/34 to a -20 one at 32/52.

52% of Michigan voters support the bailout of the auto industry when they look back on it to 36% opposed. With that majority who support it, Romney’s favorability is 19/75 and he trails Obama 81-15. 62% of Republican voters oppose the bailout to only 24% supportive so that issue may not hurt Romney too much in the primary, but his stance could take the state off the board for him in November.

So it’s not just Mitt, but his party, that seems out of touch with Michigan perceptions at the moment; Obama beats Rick Santorum by 11 points, Ron Paul by 18 points, and Newt Gingrich by 22 points, in the same PPP survey. Meanwhile all the Michigan numbers reinforce the increasingly strong impression nationally that the basic political configurations of 2008, thought by many to be as distant as those of another century, have returned. Obama’s current 16-point margin over Romney in Michigan is the same as his margin of victory in the state over John McCain.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.