GOP in Michigan & Arizona: 3 things to know

Santorum vies for Mitt's home state, spoiler Democrats campaign for Paul.

Today's polling shows a close race for the Republican candidates in Michigan: PPP and WeAskAmerica each have the current frontrunner Mitt Romney leading by 2 and 4 points in the state primary, while the Mitchell/Rosetta Stone poll has his nearest rival Rick Santorum +2 ahead.

Arizona, a state that is home to a significant Mormon population, is expected to be won by the former Massachusetts governor: the polls give Romney a 13-16 point lead on Santorum.

Most tellingly, however, an overall Republican nominee race poll commissioned by Gallup on Sunday showed Romney ahead by a mere two points (Santorum 29, Romney 31, Gingrich 15, Paul 11); today a Politico poll switches this, giving Santorum the slim lead (Santorum 36, Romney 34, Gingrich 13, Paul 7).

The state of Michigan offers 30 delegate votes, awarded proportionally in relation to the state's 14 congressional districts. Likewise, Arizona has 29 delegates up for grabs. The Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has not campaigned at all in the Great Lake state, while Ron Paul appeared there only in the last three days.

1) Lose-lose for Romney in home state?

Over at the New York Daily News, Jonathan Lemire argues that whether or not Romney wins Michigan -- the state in which he was born and his father George W. Romney was a governor -- the outcome of tomorrow's primary could be a disaster for his campaign:

If he loses, the defeat would be devastating and could destroy his campaign.

A narrow victory, which the polls now suggest, would open Romney to a slew of questions about why he had such trouble banking a win on his home turf.

And even if he prevails in a rout, his positions and recent rhetoric that appeal to right-wing Michigan voters -- particularly on the auto industry bailout -- may cost him the swing state in November.

Rick Klein at ABC News has a similar warning; that Romney's challenges are growing rather than shrinking as the primary season develops:

Romney's struggle to close the deal in Michigan, where his family has deep roots and where he cruised to victory four years ago, is underscoring longstanding concerns about his candidacy, in addition to creating new ones.

. . . Besides having to answer questions about whether he's conservative enough, Romney now has to beat back suggestions that he can't connect with blue-collar voters whose support he'd need in the fall. Michigan, with its high unemployment and battered manufacturing base, is filled with the kind of voters whose support will determine the presidency in November.

2) The rhetoric shifts, again

Appealing to voters of modest incomes is exactly the task Santorum set himself over the weekend. In a scathing attack to his rival after a weak performance in the most recent GOP debate, Santorum told conservatives in a suburban neighbourhood of Detroit on Saturday:

I didn't blow in the wind when things were popular with the elite, because I don't come from the elite.

And on Romney's wavering positions over global warming and the deficit, Santorum blasted:

Maybe he doesn't understand what the term "resolute" means. It means that you're supposed to have a resolve or a consistent pattern of beliefs.

That evening, his attack on Obama was bizarrely anti-education -- and according to the Post's Eugene Robinson, "ridiculous, offensive, hypocritical":

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day, and put their skills to test, that aren't taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Martin at Politico noted that Romney has not been faux pas-free in recent days:

The former Massachusetts governor demonstrated again in a Detroit speech Friday how he can be a political hazard to himself when he veers off-script. Romney's wife, he explained in a state with 9.3 percent unemployment and in a city blighted by abandoned and decaying homes, "drives a couple of Cadillacs."

. . . Part of the front-runner's difficulty closing the deal is plainly a product of his distant, mechanical style. He bursts with specificity and disgorges a dazzling array of numbers, but conservatives aren't brought to their feet by a recitation of just how many Americans work for companies that file their federal taxes as individuals rather than as corporations.

3) Democrats call for Paul; could upset the vote

Perhaps the biggest unknown hanging over Michigan is what role Democrats will play in the "open" primary. With cross-party voters allowed to take to the state's GOP ballot, The Week has rounded up some of the possible outcomes of a Democratic attempt to spoil the race for Romney. The Detroit Free Press also reported today on the Democrat activists hoping to snag some delegates for the libertarian candidate Ron Paul; at this stage rather an outlier in the race, but votes for whom could further weaken Romney's standing as the man to lead the Republican party.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.