According to the latest polls, tomorrow’s Michigan Republican presidential primary is a tossup between Michigan native and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But Democratic crossover voters could play a decisive role here that may help to determine the Republican nominee.
The Michigan primary was supposed to be a cakewalk for Romney, son of former Gov. George Romney. After all, he is a quasi-favorite son with roots in the state, has tremendous advantages in name recognition, money and campaign organization, and enjoys endorsements from virtually the entire Michigan Republican Party establishment. But as an unprincipled opportunist who flip-flopped to the right from his moderate record in Massachusetts in order to appeal to the party’s conservative base, he has only earned their distrust. The more consistently conservative Santorum has exploited this distrust to make the primary a tightly contested race.
There is no partisan voter registration in Michigan, making primaries open for any voter. President Barack Obama’s name appears alone on the Democratic primary ballot, which is meaningless, because Democrats will choose their presidential nominee at May 5 caucuses. This situation has led to talk that large numbers of Democrats will cross over into the Republican primary to vote for Santorum, who is seen as a weaker opponent for Obama. A Santorum victory here will not only embarrass Romney, but will also put an end to his shaky front-runner status while establishing Santorum as the conservative alternative before Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.
Talk about a Democratic crossover for Santorum has been both blatant and subtle. Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the Daily Kos, a liberal blog, said, “In order to help President Obama and all Democratic candidates this November, please vote for Rick Santorum in the Michigan primary on Tuesday, February 28. It might be painful, but you will be doing President Obama, the Democratic Party and the entire country a big favor.”
John Truscott, who was a top aide to former Gov. John Engler, said in a commentary in yesterday’s Detroit Free Press, “We need to wise up and not allow your Democratic friends to vote in our open primary. They’ve admitted they want to run against Santorum and will be voting for him on Tuesday.”
Last week, state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing), said, “Don’t be surprised if we play games in the election.” In response, state Sens. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) and Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) invited Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican primary. Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, in an e-mail to party members, then said, “Any Democrat who takes Senators Jones and Meekhof up on their offer will still be able to participate in the Michigan Democratic Party’s presidential caucuses on May 5, 2012. If Democratic crossover votes affect the results of the GOP presidential primary next Tuesday, the Republicans will only have themselves to blame.”
For older Democrats with long memories, a crossover vote for Santorum will be payback for something that happened 40 years ago. The 1972 Michigan Democratic presidential primary was a three-way race between Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), favored by anti-Vietnam War liberals; former Vice-President and 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey, supported by organized labor; and racist former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who drew strong support in the Detroit suburbs from opponents of cross-district school busing. President Richard Nixon had only token opposition in the Republican primary, and Wallace also received a sympathy vote after being shot in an assassination attempt the day before the primary.
But it is clear that large numbers of Republicans crossed over into the Democratic primary to vote for Wallace and embarrass the Democrats. The Democratic turnout was 1,588,022, nearly five times the Republican turnout of 336,713. Wallace won with 51 percent of the vote, compared to 27 percent for McGovern and 16 percent for Humphrey.
Wallace’s primary victory only embarrassed Michigan Democrats, for McGovern went on to get the nomination. But if Santorum wins in Michigan tomorrow, it could start him on the momentum to capture the nomination and possibly set up Obama for the biggest Democratic presidential landslide since Lyndon Johnson creamed Barry Goldwater in 1964.