There has been an intense amount of interest in Public Policy Polling’s latest survey of the Republican presidential primary in Michigan. It shows Rick Santorum leading Mitt Romney by a 37- 33 margin. But the headline—“Romney Gaining On Santorum In Michigan”—is the real source of interest, because it confirms exactly what most “experts” had expected, thanks to Romney’s large spending advantage in Michigan, and the general feeling that Santorum was becoming a bit unhinged on the campaign trail.
Nate Silver, however, argues convincingly that PPI’s earlier Michigan poll, which showed Santorum racing out to a 15-point lead, was probably an outlier (with a sample showing a suspiciously huge evangelical vote, for one thing). Moreover, the new poll doesn’t seem to show Santorum exactly weakening: his approval-disapproval ratios remain very good, and he continues to beat Romney decisively among the most conservative elements of the MI electorate. Romney’s own favorability is improving, which probably reflects the fact that much of his early MI advertising has been “biographical” rather than “comparative” or negative.
So one popular idea—that Michigan is the new Florida, and Santorum’s eventual decline and fall in the former state is as inevitable as Newt Gingrich’s was in the latter—isn’t really based on empirical evidence, so far. Perhaps Mitt or his Super PAC will go savagely negative on Santorum in Michigan between now and February 28, and perhaps it won’t backfire. But that all remains to be seen.
The one thing that is clear is that Wednesday’s CNN-sponsored debate in AZ—which could be the last in the entire contest—could be a very big deal, not only in AZ but in MI, where voters are likely to be watching pretty closely. I’d say the crucial moments for MI, and maybe the whole GOP nomination contest, could be how Team Romney assesses the situation right after that debate, and whether it decides it has to go crazy negative on Santorum in order to avoid a potential two-state calamity on February 28.