Last night's white glower rally in Michigan was supposed to tell us something novel and important, instead of mumbling vague phrases we've heard before. This time, we thought, a GOP primary vote would be decisive, recasting the narrative for the future, solidifying positions and increasing momentum.
But here we are, doing our walks of shame back to the campaign trail the next day, and Mitt Romney won.
Except, he didn't. And neither did Rick Santorum. Or, both did? The Republican pitch for the presidency still resembles someone throwing a handful of Jell-O and hoping it will cohere mid-flight instead of atomizing into something sticky and gross that sprays on everyone.
Arizona was never in doubt. Nate Silver had predicted the state for Romney at 43.4 percent, and he won with 47.3 percent, due in part to his 2008 success and a Mormon voting population that can swing about a nine-point advantage. Romney's advocacy for "self-deportation" for illegals and endorsement from Governor Jan Brewer no doubt helped in a state that's only "death's head hats for deputies" away from figuring out a final solution to the Latin Problem. Also, John McCain liked him—in public—mainly because John McCain hates Rick Santorum and has a Gossip Girl-esque ability to nurture revenge. If professional politics is professional wrestling, this is Survivor Series, and John McCain has donned a giant sumo thong and driven a Town Car over Rick Santorum in the parking garage of the Joe Louis Arena, to get some respect for a wealthy front-runner unaware of the favor.
Romney carried Michigan, beating Santorum 41-38 percent. He can, of course, claim a victory there because, well, math. But Santorum can still plausibly whip up support by claiming one as well. It was never supposed to be this close. Romney won Michigan in 2008, with 39 percent of the vote, in a larger and stronger field. It was his original home state before he bought houses in, ran for governor or "saved" Olympics in the others.
Yet Santorum opened in Michigan with a 15-point polling lead on Romney, and even 10 days ago still maintained a nearly five-point advantage. Romney not only made up the difference but came out three points ahead—a surge that has more to do with his historical, home state and money advantages than his actual strengths as a candidate. Even if Santorum's number of proportionally awarded delegates turns out to be less than impressive, the moral victory isn't bad.
If the outcome feels inconclusive, we have to search for meaning elsewhere, and the detailed results don't tell us much more. Romney again did well with the wealthy and the old; Santorum carried the union vote. The big surprises are that Romney beat a loudly Catholic candidate for the Catholic vote, 44-37 percent. He also outperformed Santorum 42-36 percent among voters who had been laid off on the last three years, despite penning a New York Times op-ed on the auto industry that might as well have been titled, "Let Them Die."
Instinctively, we want the above to be decisive, but in a lot of the ways it's more of the same. The GOP battle between the True Conservatives and Mitt Romney is the battle between unforced errors and forced, labored everything.
Romney trudged on, in his unlovable, mulish way, while everyone else exhausted themselves. Rick Perry didn't study. Michelle Bachmann was "hoarding a bunch of catladies in your oubliette" levels of crazy. Jon Huntsman mistakenly tacked left and said, "If I may be serious for a minute..." during a contest that was really a 12 Months' Hate. And when people told Herman Cain that the president has his finger on the button, he thought they were talking about a clitoris. Newt, meanwhile, is Newt. Romney just keeps dragging his platform forward.
Santorum couldn't help himself, either. He reductively damned Barack Obama's call for all Americans to have some college, technical or apprenticeship education as a snobbish demand that everybody study the liberal arts. (This from a man with an MBA and a JD, and who attended three different colleges.) He inaccurately condemned JFK, one of the most popular presidents and most famous Catholics in history. And he kept hammering at sex and contraception, when even 98 percent of Catholic women have practiced at least the latter and presumably the former. Santorum bashed beloved American institutions like college, JFK and fucking. In Michigan, he may as well have shit on Motown, too.
At the same time, he neglected the dance what brought him: Economic populism. In a state where Romney had told every terrified and suffering auto-worker that it was in the nation's best interest that he eat a bag of hell, this should have been a no-brainer for Santorum. Instead, he spoke extemporaneously, congratulating himself with a non-starter dig about "not using a teleprompter," and avoiding any semblance of a repeatable and easily remembered stump speech. Invariably, his speeches doubled the length of Romney's.
The rest of America got to witness the unfocused spectacle in his post-primary speech, in which Santorum opened with a rambling story about his mother, held up a hunk of coal-soaked shale and addressed it like it was Yorick's skull, then went on a long ahistorical jag about the Declaration of Independence as a "government document" and praised (emphasis mine) "the men and women who signed that Declaration."
Finally, he dug ever deeper into his vocal register, which made it sound as if he'd moved on from describing the threats to America to actually threatening America. "When Santorum tries to reach for gravitas," AdWeek's Anthony Crupi remarked last night, "he sounds like One Additional Chromosome Will Arnett."
On Super Tuesday, Rick and Newt are free to split the evangelical vote, while Romney rolls up the west and the northeast and cakewalks through Virginia, because those two lunkheads didn't even get on the ballot there. This was Santorum's chance to muffle the Romney "juggernaut," but instead we look back on track: With an unappealing candidate whose campaign returns again and again to this "inevitable" status, borne upward by opponents bumbling and snarling their ways, somehow, to even greater levels of unlikeability.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo? and a former political blogger for Vice.com. He has also contributed to GQ.com and SomethingAwful.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and email him here.