The following post was published in the Perspectives Section of the Chicago Tribune on Sunday February 19.
On Tuesday, Mitt Romney added his voice to the chorus of political writers, observers, and commentators who describe Michigan as his “home state.” Romney opened his op-ed in the Detroit News with the trying-way-too-hard lines, “I am a son of Detroit…I grew up drinking Vernors and watching ballgames at Michigan and Trumbull. Cars got in my bones early. And not just any cars, American cars.”
Let’s set aside how Vernors (a local ginger ale) is overrated and that real Detroit Tigers fans always say that they used to watch games at the old Tiger Stadium’s address at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. What’s most important is that Mitt Romney is asserting that Michigan is his home turf and he is betting that his past in the state will help him in the crucial February 28 Michigan Primary. But Michigan is not Romney’s home turf and his claiming it as such is not a good idea.
Technically, Romney is a Michigander—he was born in Detroit in 1947 and he was raised in the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills. But after Romney graduated from high school in 1965 he never lived in the state again.
If Romney has a true home state, it is Massachusetts, where he attended business and law school at Harvard, raised his family in the Boston suburb of Belmont, and served as governor of the state from 2003-2007. Romney also has much stronger ties to heavily-Mormon Utah, where he attended Brigham Young University and where he returned to serve as the executive director of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Yet this notion that Michigan is Romney’s home state persists. Some of this belief is because his father George was governor of Michigan from 1963-1969. But those who argue that Mitt Romney will benefit from being the son of a former, very popular governor of Michigan are ignoring an important fact: there are very few people alive in Michigan who actually remember—let alone voted for—George Romney.
In order to have voted for George Romney, whose last campaign for governor took place in 1966, a Michigander would have to have been born by 1945. Lifelong residents who are in their late 60s are not a huge part of Michigan’s GOP primary electorate. And even if they were, if those folks admired George Romney’s liberal brand of Republicanism (ex. supporting civil rights legislation, critiquing American involvement in the Vietnam War, advocating for expansion of government social programs) they may have already fled today’s more rigidly right-wing GOP.
The sad reality for Romney is that Michigan is really just another state. Even more unfortunate for Romney, many do not view it that way. Instead, they see Michigan as a state to which Romney still has a living and politically advantageous connection. The more this false perception is held, the higher the expectations will be that Romney will win the state decisively. These heightened expectations can only serve to harm Romney if he loses in Michigan. Losing in Colorado was a surprise, but falling in his home state? That will invigorate the Anyone-but-Mitts (particularly Rick Santorum) and likely dominate the post-election commentary as well as the thoughts of Republican voters in other states heading to Super Tuesday.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of the four words that may burden Romney in the primary and, if he manages to win the Republican nomination, will certainly weigh him down in Michigan in the general election: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
These were the words used in the headline of Romney’s op-ed piece published by the New York Times on November 18. 2008. Though it’s typically the case that someone other than an article’s author is responsible for its title, the content of Romney’s argument—that the desperately floundering automotive giants Chrysler and General Motors should not receive $85 billion in federal loans to survive—does not alter the meaning of it.
Romney can attempt to wiggle out of this as much as he likes, and his recent article suggests that he will try. But time has not been kind to his “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” argument. Chrysler and General Motors are enjoying record sales and they have already paid back almost all of the money. The success of the auto company rescue is widely credited with saving countless jobs in the auto industry and preventing a job-destroying ripple effect that would have traumatized Michigan and much of the United States. This makes Romney’s 2008 article appear foolish and it makes his latest published attempt to rationalize the piece appear callous.
Romney’s Detroit News op-ed wasn’t his only media splash in Michigan on Tuesday. His campaign also debuted a new television ad. Entitled, “Growing Up”, it features Romney driving around a Michigan neighborhood, as he briefly reminisces on his past in the state before decrying the impact of unions, liberals, and President Obama. It includes footage of people exiting a factory that looks as if it came from a colorized newsreel of several generations past. As it ends, attractive photos of Mitt are shown; as a boy flashing an eager smile while sitting in a cool 50s-era car and as a young man posing in a living room with his future-wife Ann.
The ad clearly is meant to convey that Romney has roots in the state. But its retro feel unintentionally emphasizes that his only meaningful connection to Michigan are those roots. What remains is the strong impression that Romney is from Michigan, but not of Michigan, or for Michigan. His narration concludes, “Michigan’s been my home, and this is personal.” But Romney’s tone is rushed, his sentiment is inauthentic, and his words are unconvincing.