Arriving late at 8 p.m. and even then illegally parking, I realized I had made a mistake. Not only were there absolutely no Democrats present at the "Primary Results Watching Party" I had selected, but the event itself was sponsored by the AQ Republicans of Aquinas College. Attendance likewise was disappointing, with actual numbers fluctuating somewhere between 15 and 25 over the course of my two-hour visit. However, that number is misleading, as early estimates similarly pinned voter turnout as dismally low. Bearing that statistic in mind, I determined I had a decent sample from which to draw upon - albeit solely Republican.
Compared to my last experience observing collegiate politics (at GWU in Washington, D.C.), these young politicos were certainly less formal, considerably less enthused (a few stood transfixed by an old arcade version of Pac-Man in the student union), and overwhelmingly more welcoming. I first spoke with Nadina Williams, a senior at Aquinas and President of the AQ Republicans.
"I think it's anyone's game right now," said Williams, who said she liked this year's "variety" of competitive candidates.
As far as the Democrats are concerned, Williams was similarly complimentary. "It's nice to see new faces and new perspectives on how our country can be run." She said there was not yet consensus within her organization as to which candidate the AQ Republicans will support.
"We have people supporting all of the candidates," she said. Before the results were made official, an informal poll of those present revealed substantial support for Governor Romney, followed closely by Senator McCain and, less closely, Congressman Paul. Two candidates - Giuliani and Huckabee - elicited strong objections. Fred Thompson, they said, wasn't worth an objection.
With Aquinas College quite obviously a Catholic institution, I expressed some surprise at the negative reaction to former minister Mike Huckabee, whose speech was easily drowned out by mostly uncouth jokes regarding his wife, who was compared to Janet Reno. Williams quickly marshaled control of the TV remote and turned it up.
"He's a populist and a demagogue," shouted sophomore Edgard Portela over the increased volume. A vocal McCain supporter, Portela continued. "And," he added dramatically, "a tax-hiker." A chorus of hisses again overcame the room.
Interestingly, however, a majority of the same opponents of "populism," expressed deep concern for the state of the economy - particularly the middle class.
"It's shrinking," said Micah Stedman, a recent graduate of Aquinas and husband of fellow AQ Republican Jane Stedman.
Stedman, whose two-month-old daughter was kissed by John McCain at a recent campaign stop, was more direct. "The disparity between the social classes is ridiculous." Indeed, as the returns poured in and exit polls were disclosed, that concern was played out again and again, with a majority of Michigan voters identifying the economy as the issue of most importance.
In a sadly telling moment, I asked the students to clarify their thoughts on the economy.
"Michigan," said one, whose name I didn't catch. There was some light, uncomfortable laughter, not all that unlike the kind you might hear in a funeral parlor. "Michigan," he repeated. They began to nod, quietly. His voice trailed off. "Michigan is just one big issue."
We were interrupted by Fox (but of course) News, announcing that Romney, with just 9% of precincts reporting, had already soundly beaten McCain. Cheers - and conspicuous grumbling - filled the room.
"I'm sorry but Romney's just too fake for me," said Williams, shrugging her shoulders and looking at me as if to say, I wish you had come on a better night. A debate on Romney's credentials ensued. Not surprisingly, it quickly narrowed itself to the issue of abortion.
"I'm calling that a religious conversion," said Micah Stedman, defending Romney's reversal of position on abortion while governor of Massachusetts.
Jane Stedman - who favors McCain over Romney - said that "America is looking for someone who's going to give it to you straight no matter if you like it or not." I asked her if she was at all concerned about his age. She was not discouraged.
"I think that his age is a benefit," she said, adding that it gives him "exactly" the kind of experience a president needs.
As we talked, Romney launched into his vaguely revivalist, somehow off-kilter victory speech.
"Washington is broken," Romney declared, "and we're going to do something about it."
A smattering of applause filled the room. Jane was silent.
"That seemed rehearsed," she said.
"No, that was incredibly poorly rehearsed, if anything," said her husband, Micah.
Although the AQ Republicans have yet to coalesce around an individual candidate, they all appeared to agree on one thing:
"If I were running," said Williams, "I would stay as far away from that last name - 'Bush' - as possible." Romney had invoked the names of both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in his victory remarks.
"Yeah, no one's looking for that endorsement," said Jane Stedman, marking a respectful yet dramatic departure from the AQ Republicans' former fervor for their president.
"I'm telling you," said Williams, "McCain-Huckabee. It's golden."
"It's golden," Jane agreed, taking a swipe at Romney. "I think you can throw as much money at something as you want, and you still might not win."
"As much as I hate to admit it," she said, "just look at Dick DeVos." DeVos, a powerful Republican from Grand Rapids, Michigan, spent millions of his own money campaigning for governor in 2006. He was beaten soundly by incumbent Governor Jennifer Granholm in the particularly bitter contest two years ago.
These college Republicans - many of whom worked on DeVos' campaign - have not forgotten their distaste for their Democratic rivals. As the returns came in, showing Republican Duncan Hunter being overtaken by "Uncommitted," that distaste was made clear.
"The Democrats are assholes if they vote in the Republican primary," said Jane Stedman. "I think it's wrong. If you don't like the Republicans, just stay out." Michigan's open primary system, combined with the general dissatisfaction of Democratic voters, appears to have encouraged the casting of so-called sabotage votes - votes for candidates of the opposite party, intended to skew results in favor of the weaker candidates.
"I think it could have been handled in a completely different way," said Williams, "so that all of Michigan's voters could have had a say."
"I'm excited by how close it is," said Williams of both parties' voters. "I think Michigan should be at the forefront because we have so many problems." The AQ Republicans, according to Williams, will be ready to endorse in the near future. "After Super Tuesday," she said. "And that's primarily because we can't make up our minds."