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January 10, 2008

The Michigan Outsider Factor

The Republicans will head into a tough primary fight in Michigan this week, with all of the candidates vying for an important win before the South Carolina vote on the 22nd. The Democrats, however, will focus on Nevada, since the Michigan primary has been disqualified by the DNC for violating the party's rules by moving its primary up before February 5th. Only Hillary Clinton appears on the ballot among the main contenders, leaving Democrats the option of skipping their side of the ticket and focusing in on the Republicans.

The Democrats don't want that, and have organized an effort -- primarily supported by advocates for Barack Obama -- to get a big turnout for "Uncommitted":

As the nation's eyes turn to Michigan's presidential primary next Tuesday, Democrats were promoting an unusual candidate Wednesday -- Uncommitted.

That's the only choice they have on the ballot besides Hillary Clinton (or Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel). Because the Jan. 15 election date violates national Democratic Party rules, candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards withdrew their names from the state ballot. ...

Detroiters for Uncommitted Voters, a group of mostly Obama supporters, wants to make sure that people vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday, even if their candidate isn't on the ballot.

"We really want to educate people on what they should do," said Edna Bell, a former Wayne County commissioner. "If Michigan voters want change, the uncommitted vote is their way to make their voices heard."

It's presumed that most uncommitted delegates will favor Obama or Edwards, but once at the convention they can support any candidate in contention for the Democratic nomination.

Carl Levin, John Conyers, and other prominent Michigan officeholders have endorsed the effort. They are betting that the DNC doesn't have the testicular fortitude to deny seats to 156 delegates from their state, as well as the many delegates from Florida facing similar sanction. Michigan's Democratic Party needs the delegates to fight for rules changes on primary scheduling so that this standoff doesn't happen again in 2012.

Will that work? It seems doubtful. It's somewhat akin to turning one's vote into a blank check for party apparatchiks. Vote now for no one, and we'll use your vote ... wisely. Uh-huh.

Democrats have another option open to them, and that's casting votes in a real primary -- the Republican contest. Crossover votes in open primaries are always meaningful, but promise to be especially so in this one. Let's not forget that independents will also likely vote in the meaningful GOP contest rather than the meaningless Democratic one. Who benefits, and who suffers in a strong outsider turnout in the Republican primary?

The Winners

The biggest beneficiaries of a strong outsider turnout will be those candidates who have shown bipartisanship and compromise. Whether they like the implications of it or not, that's going to be John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and perhaps Rudy Giuliani as well.

One of McCain's explicit themes is that he has shown he can work with people to get projects accomplished. Conservatives have complaints about a few of those projects, especially the BCRA and the last two attempts at immigration reform, but Democrats and especially independents will see him as someone with whom they can work -- although the war may keep them away.

Mike Huckabee's social conservatism may cause some hesitation, but his economic populism may hold quite a bit of appeal to Michigan voters stuck in a bad economy. He speaks their language, and he connects better on an emotional level with those who have struggled. Rudy Giuliani's combative image may scare some off, but his center-left positions on social issues combined with his record of economic revival in New York may make him the sleeper candidate in Michigan, among Republicans and Democrats alike.

The Losers

A strong outsider participation probably dooms two candidates, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney. Thompson has focused more on South Carolina and probably won't do all that well in Michigan in any case, but he will attract very few Democrats with his tough, conservative line, although perhaps more independents than people may realize. Romney, though, will have to contend with his own move towards the right in the past few years. Although he can point to his years as Massachusetts Governor as evidence of his ability to work with Democrats, he has steadfastly abandoned that point throughout the year to shore up his conservative credentials.

Keep an eye on the vote totals next Tuesday. If the Democratic votes start looking anemic while Republican turnout starts breaking records, it could transform the face of this primary. Keep an especially close watch for Republican candidates who see this dynamic and start adjusting their message to capture the outsider votes.


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