November 10, 2012 at 1:00 am

Michigan proved beyond Romney's reach

Dems' superior organization aided defeat of state's native son

On election night, Oakland County GOP executive director Dennis Pittman felt victory was looming for Republican Mitt Romney, invigorated by the surge of volunteers at his GOP headquarters who turned out for Oakland's native son.

The belief among Republicans was a victory in Oakland, where Romney was raised as the son of a three-term governor, meant winning Michigan and winning the nation.

Republicans focused their time and attention on the county that had become a bellwether of Michigan election outcomes, choosing Barack Obama in 2008 and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder in 2010. Republicans broke their statewide records for phone banking and canvassing.

Then the results came in. Obama won Oakland County by 8 points — similar to his statewide edge of 54 percent to 45 percent. It wasn't the thumping of 2008 when Obama beat Sen. John McCain of Arizona by 14.5 points in Oakland, but as Pittman says, "It's still a loss."

"We swam harder, but the waves were higher," said Pittman, who believes the changing demographics of Oakland County and Democrats' focus on party rather than candidates accounted for the defeat.

In the days since the election, Republicans have questioned what went wrong. In Michigan, those organizing field operations said they couldn't have returned better numbers for identifying and contacting their supporters, but wondered whether they should have targeted more voters on the fence. Others in the campaign were puzzled Romney made a late play for Pennsylvania — where he lost by 5 points — instead of focusing on his home state where the Romney name resonates. Many praised the gains from 2008, but figured Romney's November 2008 column the New York Times headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" doomed his chances in Michigan and Ohio.

In the end, the math just didn't add up.

In 2008, Obama cruised to a landslide win in Michigan by more than 16 points, buoyed by McCain's decision to give up on the state and about 500,000 solid and soft Republicans staying home, said pollster Ed Sarpolus. On Tuesday, Romney netted about 62,500 more votes than McCain despite pledging to compete in his home state.

"In the end, Romney did no better in motivating Republicans than John McCain and that's why he lost," Sarpolus said.

Turnout was down in Michigan to 64 percent of the voting age population, compared to a 40-year high of 66 percent in 2008. As a result, Obama's vote total in Michigan was down about 313,000 from four years earlier.

Sarpolus said 142,000 Democrats stayed home this year, but so did about 15,000 Republicans. About 150,000 independents didn't show up, either. However, the majority of those who did show up voted for Romney rather than Obama, Sarpolus said.

Turnout lower than 2008

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Michigan polls suggested the race would be tighter than the final counts. Republicans counted on a higher turnout in conservative western Michigan and a win in Oakland County.

Romney flipped Kent County in west Michigan and widened the margins of victory compared with McCain in the four traditionally conservative western counties of Allegan, Barry, Kent and Ottawa. But the gains amounted to about 4,800 more votes than McCain received, because the turnout was lower by nearly 18,500 voters.

Presidential elections bring out a wider swath of the electorate, and usually that favors Democrats. Michigan hasn't voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1988.

Romney's losses in Metro Detroit — where nearly 40 percent of the state's votes are cast — sealed the Obama victory.

Obama won Michigan without making one stop here since the summer. He didn't spend any network TV ad dollars here until the final week when his campaign spent less than $1 million airing two ads on the auto rescue.

What the Obama campaign did have, however, was a ground organization. As in other states, Obama's field campaign had been in Michigan since 2008. The campaign was built around neighborhood team leaders. Those volunteer leaders had more accountability and were responsible for making benchmarks on voter registration, canvassing and even social media, said Matt McGrath, a spokesman for Obama Michigan.

Democrats relied on better use of technology and data mining than 2008 to target voters. Plus, there was better coordination between the Obama campaign and Michigan Democrats running for local offices, local Democrats said.

Obama lost supporters

Frank Houston, chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party, said Obama's win in Oakland amounted to a better ground game and a better candidate whose positions, particularly on the auto bailout and women's issues, resonated.

"Independent voters aren't going to rally around Romney just because he was born here," Houston said.

Obama's margin of victory was lower in every county this year, yet he still won the state. Notably, the president lost a total of 104,000 votes in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties compared to 2008, while Romney gained nearly 18,000 more than McCain. Still, Obama won the tri-counties, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Wyckham D. Seelig, chairman of the Michigan 7th Congressional District Republicans, said Obama's team successfully defined Romney as an "evil" venture capitalist.

The conservative ad money spent in Michigan was anti-Obama, he said, not positive ads to inspire voters to consider Romney, and they ultimately sat out the election.

The ground game enthusiasm from the convention was "focused on finding people to vote for Mitt," Seelig said.

"It needed to be focused on persuading people."

mschultz@detnews.com

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