Nearly two months ago, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum swapped single-digit leads in the voting polls among Iowa caucus-goers before Romney thought he clenched a slim victory in the Iowa caucuses, but a recount later revealed that Santorum really won.
The two Republican presidential candidate hopefuls are neck and neck once more, with recent poll numbers indicating fluctuating support for the two frontrunners leading into the upcoming Michigan primary on. University professors said the matchup in Romney’s home state could mark a critical turning point in the race to become the Republican presidential nominee.
A poll released Sunday by Public Policy Polling, showed Santorum holding a narrow lead over Romney with 37 to 33 percent among Michigan voters. Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings said if Romney loses the primary in Michigan, where his father served as governor in the 1960s as well as former president of American Motors, Santorum could gain critical momentum.
“There was a strong expectation that Michigan was Romney territory, so if he were to lose that, would be a signal that he’s really in trouble,” he said.
Hutchings said Romney has failed to connect with more conservative Republican voters. However, he added that Romney has proven victorious in splintering the vote among the other candidates including Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R–Texas).
As his Republican rivals have lost popularity and focus has shifted to the matchup between Santorum and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor has been less able to disguise his less conservative ideologies, Hutchings said. He suggested that this has resulted in increased support for Santorum.
“If (Santorum) is becoming the anti-Romney candidate as opposed to there being multiple anti-Romney candidates who split the vote, well, that spells trouble for Mitt Romney,” Hutchings said.
Still, Hutchings suggested that a victory for Santorum in the Michigan primary would be more essential than it would be for Romney, particularly since Romney’s campaign is better funded and organized and could potentially make a comeback more easily if he loses.
According to Hutchings, if Santorum loses the Michigan primary, the loss might damage his rising perception among Republican voters as a viable opponent to President Barack Obama in November’s general election, subsequently hindering his fundraising efforts.
“In many respects, it’s actually more of a make-or-break state for Santorum than it is for Romney,” Hutchings said. “(Santorum) needs to rack up a series of victories in order to generate more revenue on behalf of his campaign. If he loses here, particularly after appearing to have the momentum, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for him.”
Given the unit rule in the Republican nomination — that most state’s primary elections award all their delegates to the Republican National Convention to the winner of the popular vote — this year’s race has lasted longer than most, according to Political Science Prof. Nicholas Valentino.
He suggested that indecision among Republican voters who think Romney is not conservative enough and Santorum is not electable enough could elongate the nomination, but Valentino added that he was unsure why Republican voters have taken this long to choose a nominee.
“That’s the $64,000 question, is why this year, when seemingly the incumbent president is in a historically weak position with regard to the economy and jobs, the opposition couldn’t more quickly settle on a (candidate),” he said.
Like Hutchings, Valentino said Romney has had trouble connecting with the party’s Republican base, causing a growth in support for Santorum.
“People are getting the idea that (Santorum might have a chance, actually, in the general election,” Valentino said. “And they might vote for him. His viability is much higher than it once was.”
Valentino added that a win for Santorum in the Michigan primary could be an enormous blow to Romney.
“A win in Michigan would be a very symbolic, powerful victory because this is Mitt Romney’s birth state,” he said. “This could be very, very important for Santorum’s campaign.”
However, LSA senior Brian Koziara, external vice chair of the College Republicans, said he predicted Romney would win the Michigan primary. He compared the upcoming primary to the situation in Florida last month, where he said Gingrich was doing well in polls after a victory in South Carolina, before Romney unleashed a barrage of attack ads against the former speaker.
He added that he believes Romney will still be the more electable candidate against Obama, particularly in Michigan, which has historically served as a swing state in presidential elections.
“Michigan Republicans understand that if Michigan goes red in the general election, it’s going to be very difficult for President Obama to get a second term,” he said. “Republicans don’t have to win Michigan in order to get the White House. Democrats do.”