Michigan and Arizona: Bruising GOP primaries brighten Obama’s prospects

Susan Walsh/AP

When President Obama accused Republicans who opposed the auto industry bailout of peddling a “load of you know what,” he might have been describing the residue in Michigan and Arizona for Republicans now that the two primaries are over.

Obama is in better shape in both states since the GOP circus came to town, with higher favorable ratings than before and with an elevated profile among key constituencies, like blue-collar voters and women who have new appreciation of his handling of the auto bailouts and the contraception issue. The bruising primary campaigns didn’t elevate Obama all by themselves. The slightly improving economic picture helped. But the tone and substance of the GOP primaries gave Obama newfound traction that, for now, has led to a big lead in Michigan and a dead heat in Arizona.

In Michigan, where Mitt Romney eked out a victory, an NBC News/Marist poll has Obama up 18 points over Romney (51 percent to 33 percent). In 2008, Obama won Michigan by 16 points. After underwhelming poll numbers in the fall—Romney led Obama 46 percent to 41 percent in an EPIC/MRA poll in mid-November—Obama’s prospects have brightened considerably in Michigan and it may be harder now for the GOP to consider it a potential swing state.

Democrats do consider Arizona a potential swing state, despite Obama’s 9-point loss there to Republican Sen. John McCain four years ago and despite the fact that Arizona has backed a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1948—Bill Clinton in 1996. New polling puts Obama in the running in Arizona and Democrats believe GOP positions in favor of the state’s tough immigration law will energize Hispanic voters and create turnout problems for Republicans in November. 

During the primaries, Romney embraced Arizona’s tough immigration law and its use of police searches of suspects thought to be undocumented. He also described a process of “self deportation” that would occur if undocumented workers cannot keep jobs because of tighter identification screening. Lastly, Romney has said he would sign only a part of the so-called DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented residents who serve in the U.S. military. That’s a narrower commitment than the underlying legislation, which would also provide a path to citizenship for undocumented residents who pursue a college diploma.

“These extreme positions are going to haunt him should he make it to November,” wrote Democratic National Committee spokesman and strategist Brad Woodhouse in a memo seeking to identify GOP weaknesses after Arizona and Michigan.

The deeper problem for Romney in Arizona, as it has been elsewhere, is the loss of support among independents. In a November Pew Research Center poll, Obama was losing independents to Romney by 53 percent to 41 percent.  In a Pew poll this month, the president was winning independents 51 percent to 42 percent.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said that in both states Republicans have been hurt by the “echo chamber” primary in which attacks have dominated and the challengers have spent more time positioning around and against each other than explaining their plans for the future. “It’s a party talking to itself, not independent voters,” LaBolt said.

In Michigan, Romney and Santorum’s opposition to the GM and Chrysler bailouts—started by President George W. Bush but enlarged and managed by Obama—has cost Republicans support not only among auto workers but among owners and employees of small businesses who depend on the economic activity that the Big Three generate. “Any day Romney is talking about autos is a good day for us,” LaBolt said.

Woodhouse said Romney has lost ground in Michigan that he’s unlikely to regain. “Mitt Romney has badly damaged himself with the working- and middle‐class voters who make up Michigan’s electorate,” he said. “If Mitt Romney had his way, GM and Chrysler’s doors would be closed today and the American auto industry would no longer exist.”

The fight the Republican candidates picked over the Obama administration’s handling of a controversial contraception ruling also wound up as a big plus for Obama the candidate. The administration's negotiated agreement appeased Catholic employers who had objected to paying for contraceptive services, while Republicans, particularly Santorum, who personally opposes the use of contraceptives and some prenatal testing for birth defects, were left struggling to defend positions largely out-of-step with the lifestyles of moderate women and independents.

Late last year, Obama’s support dropped among women, but his standing with them has improved in recent weeks, as the economy inched upward and the birth control issue became a bigger part of the debate, according to polls by the Associated Press-GfK.

While Republicans have been competing in Arizona and Michigan, the Obama campaign has been stepping up its voter-identification and mobilization efforts. The reelection campaign already has eight offices in Michigan—in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren, Pontiac, Ann Arbor, Flint, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. In Arizona, three offices are open in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Tucson. Another will open soon in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and will focus on Hispanic outreach.

The campaign is also aggressively organizing voter-registration drives and social events to contact new voters. From now until March 31, the reelection has 73 such events scheduled in Detroit, 22 in Grand Rapids, and 59 in Ann Arbor. The same kind of grassroots activity is planned in Arizona. From now until April 22, the campaign will conduct 69 organizing events in and around Phoenix. The Tucson area will have 40 events between now and March 29, and Flagstaff will host 16 between now and March 20.

“Unlike every other president, President Obama didn’t let his election organization go away,” LaBolt said. “He has kept his supporters actively engaged. The goal is to persuade new people and turn up participation.”

The movement in the polls in Arizona and Michigan in Obama’s direction suggests some of that work is being done by Republicans. A whole load of it, in fact.

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