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January 14, 2008

Michigan Primary: Primed for Next Media Blunder?


There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing following the disastrous media coverage of the New Hampshire primary, with another question looming: Is the media headed toward another disaster this Tuesday?


Much of that hand-wringing is warranted – the media too quickly declared Barack Obama the presumptive leader in New Hampshire, ignoring a few basic facts.


The first is that the campaign in Iowa and the campaign in New Hampshire are two different contests, not two innings of the same baseball game. Presidential hopefuls campaigned in both states simultaneously before election day. The idea that Iowa’s results start a cumulative effect unfortunately runs afoul of this reality. Candidates courted New Hampshire voters and built organization there all along. In the end, it was Hillary’s ability to get out the vote among women that earned her the nod.


The second is that until right after Iowa, Hillary Clinton led every New Hampshire poll. In the end, what should have been the angle, “Hillary narrowly avoids losing contest she’d led all along,” was “Hillary’s tears help her stage comeback.” John McCain, who won New Hampshire in 2000, also painted himself as a comeback candidate, even though he was expected to win again this year.

This lack of proper focus could prompt another blunder as the contest shifts to Michigan.


Although the Democratic contest is a referendum vote by Michigan Democrats on Clinton, the stakes on the Republican side are a bit higher. Although sanctions by the national party chopped the size of the delegation in half, Tuesday’s vote is chiefly about generating headlines.


The media has cast the election as a make-or-break moment between McCain and Mitt Romney, whose family name is still well known in the state. The focus on this storyline doesn’t miss the mark by very much, but it still misses it.


In Michigan, the contest is all about the economy. Losses in manufacturing jobs have created the nation’s highest unemployment rate, and no one expects things to get any better soon. Unfortunately, both of the front runners in this contest have offered nothing more than vague promises and generalities.


McCain’s campaign apparently thinks it’s telling Michigan voters something new by informing them that some of their jobs aren’t coming back. And, despite a strong desire in the state’s political class to learn from past mistakes and diversify the economy, he says he wants the state to again be the world’s leader in automobiles.


Romney, who grew up in Michigan, has ignored reality and insists that high-wage manufacturing jobs are coming back.


This could be why the latest polls show that, while the two candidates are engaged in a close race, neither of them has much hard support. That leaves open the possibility for a dark horse to come in under the wire – Mike Huckabee.


Huckabee’s ads focus on expanding health care, education and building roads – things that the people of Michigan talk about, and that most of the state’s citizens acknowledge are critical to rebuilding the state’s economy. His message about enforcing trade could come right out of union talking points. He’s working with the state’s evangelicals and has brought Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, to Michigan to woo independent conservatives with strong Libertarian tendencies. As important as Detroit is to the state’s Democratic Party, the outstate regions that are home to these two blocs of voters are critical to the GOP.


That makes Michigan prime for an upset, so much so that Huckabee – said to be sensing an opening – has concentrated much of his pre-South Carolina effort here.


It could easily pay off, and not just in delegates. If Huckabee can capitalize with a strong Tuesday finish, expect headlines declaring him just the latest comeback kid.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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