By John Avlon
It’s the biggest one-day delegate haul to date; 59 delegates may not sound like a lot on the road to 1,144, but Tuesday’s contests represent the most delegates at stake since the GOP nomination fight began in Iowa. This distinction will be held for precisely one week, until Super Tuesday on March 6 when 10 states, with 437 delegates up for grabs, vote.
Three dynamics that could drive the vote:
1) Watch for a popular/delegate split: Here’s one Motown move to keep an eye on – a possible split between the popular vote and delegate allocation. That’s because the delegates are being awarded on a per congressional district basis. So while Mitt Romney might carry the populous counties in and around Detroit, he could find himself outpaced in the delegate count if Rick Santorum cleans up in the more rural and conservative districts. We often boil elections down to the popular vote, but in this primary contest, the real prize is delegates, not necessarily the percentage of the popular vote.
2) The faith X-factor: The culture wars seem to be on again as the candidates compete for an edge among social conservatives. Romney has a built-in cushion in Arizona, which boasts the 7th-largest Mormon population in the United States. In 2008, Mormons made up 11% of the total primary vote in Arizona, with Romney carrying nearly 90% of their ballots. In Michigan, Santorum is presumably hoping to rally his fellow Catholics and evangelical Protestants with his attacks on the “absolute” separation of church and state.
Interestingly, Michigan – especially the area around Dearborn – also has the largest Muslim-American populations in the United States. Socially conservative, this community has voted Republican in the past, and there are reports that politically active members of this community are rallying around Ron Paul and his message of civil liberties and a noninterventionist foreign policy.
3) Independents can vote in open primaries: In Arizona, independent voters make up nearly 34% of registered voters – more than the number of registered Democrats and just 2 percentage points less than Republicans. In the state’s largest city, Phoenix, independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans. And in Tuesday’s primary, independents can vote for the Republican presidential candidate they like best. Likewise, Michigan’s primary is functionally open because the state does not register voters by party. That means Democrats or independents can vote for a Republican presidential candidate, if they so choose.
It’s too bad that most GOP presidential candidates are busy running so far to the right that they don’t offer an attractive alternative to Democrats and independents. Instead, some Democrats are trying to unleash mischief along the lines that Rush Limbaugh encouraged in 2008 – voting for the Republican they think would be weakest against President Barack Obama.
But one serious aside – the influence of independent voters is one reason that Michigan has traditionally been considered a swing state – while some Obama campaign strategists believe that Arizona could be within the Democrats reach this year for the first time since Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996.