Ten days ago, Michigan was a major battleground state for the general election, Mitt Romney was looking to reconnect with the middle class in his home state, and Rick Santorum was gaining momentum after three big wins and looking at maybe becoming the first Catholic nominated by the Republican party. The Obama campaign was so concerned about Michigan being in play for the fall that it brought President Obama there to give a major speech and made plans to spend valuable ad dollars in the state.
But that was then.
Now, after the Romney and Santorum campaigns, Michigan is likely off the fall map of battleground states. It looks again reliably Democratic -- not because of anything the Obama team has done, but because of the nature of the contest between Romney and Santorum, which has alienated many independent voters and created a tremendous divide. This isn't a good sign as the Republican nomination contest moves into other battleground states like Ohio next week.
The imperative of the Romney campaign for the last few weeks was supposed to be healing the class divide and the disconnect between their wealthy candidate and middle- and working-class voters, especially in the industrial Midwest. In the last few days, Romney has talked about owning multiple Cadillacs to be able to drive to his multiple houses, and the fact that he has a lot of racetrack friendships -- not with Nascar fans but with Nascar team owners. Going into the Michigan primary Tuesday, Romney is perceived more than ever as out of touch, living a life alien to middle-class voters.
And now we have Rick Santorum presenting himself as a culture warrior, to the point of attacking President Kennedy's famous speech about the separation of church and state. Santorum actually said on ABC's This week with George Stephanopoulos that reading Kennedy's speech made him want to "throw up." This is an amazing turnabout.
More than 80 years ago, Al Smith, a progressive governor of New York, lost the presidency in large part because of his Catholic faith and the bigotry that existed among many Protestant fundamentalists. The prejudice was both subtle and very overt, with some folks accusing him of building a tunnel to the Vatican from New York City as he stood in front of the Holland Tunnel. Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy recognized what happened to Smith and sought to draw a firm line of separation between religion (especially the Catholic Church) and the state. He understood that politically this was a must if he was going to be the first Catholic elected president. Even after addressing the issue so clearly, Kennedy lost votes on Election Day because of prejudice against Catholics by some Protestants.
Ironically, in order to appeal to Protestant fundamentalists and conservatives, Santorum now wants to erase the line that Kennedy drew in 1960 between the church and the state. No Catholic has ever been nominated by the Republican Party, and now we have Santorum -- a major candidate who is Catholic -- criticize the only Catholic elected president in order to win votes among voters Kennedy was concerned his faith might offend.
In the course of campaigns we learn a lot about the candidates and people involved, what values are important to them and how they connect those values with the American public. This week we have learned that politics is not just about connection, it is also about separation. Separation between candidates and middle class voters, separation of church and state, and the separation through the arc of history between where things stand today and where they stood more than 50 years ago.
Cross-posted from ABC News.