With nothing but weeks of time to fill between Maine's Caucuses and this week's primaries, we heard unending talk about the importance of the Michigan Primary: It was going to be a pivotal contest. A proving ground. A test that might be make-or-break for both the presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney, and his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants challenger Rick Santorum.
Let's just tell the truth about it: It was a complete and embarassing flop for just about everyone involved.
Santorum and Romney really proved to be a pair of ridiculous bumblers. For Santorum, who's been making his case in terms of the economy and the need to revive America's manufacturing sector, Michigan should have been a wonderful opportunity to lay the wood to Mitt Romney, whose stance on the auto industry bailouts were criticized by even his key in-state endorsers.
But rather than stick to his guns, Santorum went wildly off-message, allowing his campaign -- through the cro-magnon throwback commentary of his super PAC sugar daddy Foster Friess -- to get stuck on the crank side of the contraception debate. And in his own words, Santorum offered up a silly critique of higher education and an ill-considered slagging of John F. Kennedy that had even his ideological allies' mouths agape. Those big leads he had in Michigan went away, and the fact that he stopped speaking the language of Michiganders was a big reason why.
But Mitt Romney did nothing with the opportunity either. Instead, he picked this week to stage a lengthy demonstration of how out of touch he is with ordinary people. He had Donald Trump interrupt Michgan voters' lives with robocalls. He talked about his wife's prized pair of Cadillacs. He strained to find fellowship with NASCAR fans, telling them that, while he didn't follow the sport closely, he counted many rich team owners among his
friends donors. And then he topped that off by ridiculing some of their rain ponchos.
And there was that constant robotic pronouncement that the trees in Michigan were the right height. Because what America needs now is a president who is closely attuned to arboreal standards.
So instead of a quality contest that pitted two candidates at their best, we got a joke of a race that ended with two frontrunners collapsed and gasping at the finish line, lucky that they didn't have any serious competition from a third party.
Romney managed to win his home state by a handful of percentage points and, like we suspected, was crowned the winner by the media, who immediately set about crafting the "Romney's back" narrative as if they were in thrall to the big red checkmark they'd put by his name after the final projection was made. It was left to Santorum surrogate John Brabender to point out that winning the popular vote only got Romney one delegate, and that everyone should pay attention to the action in the congressional districts, where Santorum was faring well.
At the time Brabender started trying to get giddy reporters to start paying attention to reality, it looked like Santorum might even prevail in the delegate count -- which would have put a real kink in everyone's story about Romney's triumph. Ultimately, the result ended up being exactly what everyone deserved -- a 15-15 tie in delegate allocation. That is, until the state party interceded and gave Romney a second delegate for winning the statewide vote, which Santorum had actually earned by getting more than 15 percent of that vote.
In short, everyone involved in the Michigan Primary -- from the candidates to the people who ran the show to the media that covered it -- found some way to avoid covering themselves in glory. And instead of being a pivotal contest (with only 30 delegates at stake, it was ridiculous to sell the primary as any such thing in the first place), it only re-inflamed all of the panicky uncertainty that preceded it. Is Romney going to close the deal? Is there going to be a deadlocked convention? Should somebody beg, threaten or blackmail some new candidate to jump into the race?
This all resets the stakes for Super Tuesday and once again, all of the expectations seem to be completely, willfully out of whack. According to Andy Kroll, New York Representative Peter King is hearing "whispering and mumbling ... among top Republicans" that if Romney doesn't break loose next Tuesday, there's going to be "more of an emphasis on having someone ready" to jump into the race. Meanwhile, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is totally certain that Romney is going to end the nomination process next week. But there are only 437 delegates at stake Tuesday, all the contests distribute them proportionally, and various candidates are projected to do better than others in certain states. So that won't happen.
But the fact that everyone is either unreasonably confident or unreasonably uncertain about a contest that's designed to be a prolonged battle between the top candidates speaks volumes about the state of the race, the height of the frenzy and the widespread dissatisfaction over the candidates who make up the field. And adding to the hilarity is the fact that at some point in the future, we might look back on all the delirium, dislocation and discontent and wonder why it even happened. The economy is still quite fragile, and if anyone thinks that Obama is a shoo-in at this point, consider this: He hasn't had a hundred fundraisers because they're fun.
Elsewhere this week, Newt Gingrich has made the price of gas his key issue, Ron Paul had new conspiracies to answer for, a Romney mistake gave Santorum an opening, and third-party contenders have started to plot their hopeful path to the fall debates. For all of this and more, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of March 2, 2012.