In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary, polls showed the former Massachusetts governor trailing Santorum by as many as 10 percentage points. Despite several tone-deaf moments on the campaign trail, Romney managed to close the gap in recent days.
“I take great pride in my Michigan roots and am humbled to have received so much support here these past few weeks,” Romney tweeted after the vote was called in his favor. “On to the March contests.”
Had Romney lost, “it would have been a disaster,” as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer put it after the race was called Tuesday. Though not a crucial state in terms of delegates, losing the state where he was born and where his father served as a popular governor would have been perceived as an embarrassing failure.
Additionally, a loss would have spelled trouble for the crucial Super Tuesday state of Ohio, where the blue-collar demographics largely mirror those of Michigan, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out.
The win puts Romney on the path to the nomination, said Republican strategist Trey Hardin.
“This is a crucial night for Romney,” Hardin emailed. “His ability to attract independent voters in open primaries cannot be overlooked. His organization won the day.” (RELATED: Full coverage of the 2012 campaign)
“Romney ends the night as the most likely nominee who will probably lose the three biggest states next week. The best word for the nomination fight is lingering,” echoed former Republican strategist and Josiah Bartlett Center President Charlie Arlinghaus.
But Romney does not emerge from Tuesday night — when he also won the Arizona primary — with the crown of nominee.
“The whole night seemed anticlimactic,” Arlinghaus emailed. “Romney had a good night but not enough to pick up any steam heading into Super Tuesday. He’s in the best shape but not great shape — same as it ever was. Santorum needs to pull a rabbit out of his hat in Ohio to survive and he probably will. Newt is desperately trying to stay one step ahead of [historic perennial presidential candidate] Harold Stassen but he might win the biggest primary next week.”
Romney will likely continue to take a beating from the other candidates straight through to the convention, Hardin added.
“One thing we have learned in this nomination race is that momentum doesn’t exist. This nomination will be fought state-by-state and delegate-by-delegate. Just as the ‘anybody-but-Mitt’ candidates have been vetted, Romney himself will be vetted by each state until he is standing on the stage in Tampa officially accepting the nomination,” Hardin emailed. “This will ultimately be healthy for him and for the party in their efforts to unite behind a cause bigger than one man — beating Barack Obama.”
Santorum’s campaign staff has said that the mere fact that he had given Romney a run for his money in his home state meant that he had won, and the former Pennsylvania senator’s concession speech was celebratory in tone.
“We came into the backyard of one of my opponents,” he said, in a state where most people had told him not to bother competing.
To Michigan voters, Santorum went on: “All I have to say is: I love you back.”
Michigan awards delegates proportionally, so Santorum will get some. But losses this evening may have robbed him of his momentum heading into Super Tuesday next week.