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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.