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Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his election watch party after winning the Michigan primary in Novi, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012.

News analysis

Rick Santorum lost Michigan Tuesday, but the loss may be more troubling than the raw numbers suggest. By openly appealing to Democrats in an already unsettled primary fight, Santorum created a classic Baptist and bootlegger coalition.

In the end, it may backfire. And it may already have backfired Tuesday, as exit polls showed late-breaking voters in Michigan tilted for Romney.

Baptists and bootleggers

"Baptists and bootleggers" is an economic theory that evokes Prohibition era politics, where highly moralistic citizens outlaw legal alcohol sales while the bootleggers who profit from their exuberance egg them on.

The Baptists in Santorum's coalition are apparent in the exit polls. They may not be Baptists, but they are evangelicals, who made up 39 percent of the vote. Twenty-four percent of all voters said a candidate's religion mattered "a great deal" to them. Santorum won 63 percent of that vote. Romney won every other segment on this question, even winning by 7 points among those who said a candidate's beliefs mattered "somewhat."

The bootleggers for Santorum entered through the open primary, which allowed Michigan voters from one party to help nominate the other party's nominee. It doesn't take an especially cynical nature to see the danger in such a scheme.

On the eve of the Michigan primary leftist filmmaker Michael Moore and Markos Moulitsas of the liberal blog Daily Kos loudly endorsed Rick Santorum, the darling of the Religious Right. Santorum seconded their appeal on Monday with a robocall directly appealing to Democrat voters.

Reagan Democrats?

And it worked. Exit polls showed that 9 percent of voters in the GOP primary were Democrats, and they flocked to Santorum over Romney by 53 percent to 18 percent. Santorum's campaign explained the strategy in terms that might possibly be persuasive. The idea was to attract Reagan Democrats, a core of the Reagan coalition that produced two landslide elections in the 1980s.

Reagan Democrats were blue collar but socially conservative, union workers from rustbelt states, highly patriotic but economic protectionists, and maybe a little xenophobic. They followed NASCAR and didn't go to college. An attempt to cultivate this vote in November could pay dividends. Santorum appealed to this vote over the weekend by stirring up class envy, attacking Romney for opposing the auto bailout and attacking Obama for suggesting that everyone should go to college. He called the president a "snob" and called colleges "indoctrination mills."

Romney played into this meme with some typically goofy statements over the weekend, including an appeal to auto workers by pointing out that his wife drives two Cadillacs, presumably one at a time. Over the weekend he also noted that while he doesn't follow NASCAR, some of his good friends own NASCAR teams. The expectation on Monday was that Romney's rich guy gaffes would dull his momentum. Santorum's drive for Reagan Democrats sought to exploit this wedge.

Snickering bootleggers

But on closer analysis, Santorum's 53 percent of the 9 percent Democrat vote looks less like convert Baptists and more like snickering bootleggers. The key is a U-shaped bar chart buried in the exit polls that asks whether voters favored or opposed the Tea Party. (Something is usually up when a bar chart forms a U.)

The Tea Party question is the acid test for the alleged Reagan Democrat voters. These voters would certainly be no worse than neutral on the Tea Party, which defines itself against government expansion under Obama. Few votes available to the GOP in November would be strongly opposed to the Tea Party, and any that were available would tilt toward the more centrist Romney, not Santorum.

Among Michigan voters who "strongly support" the Tea Party, Santorum beat Romney 45 to 37 percent. Among those who "somewhat support," are "neutral" or "somewhat oppose" the Tea Party, Romney won by 10 points, 15 points, and 27 points respectively.

But then the bootleggers arrive. Twelve percent of all Michigan primary voters strongly opposed the Tea Party. Santorum won this vote by a stunning 16 points — 45 percent to 29 percent. Clearly not Reagan Democrats, these are more likely bootleggers mobilized by auto unions and popular Democratic activists. They view Santorum as a weaker candidate, want to see the Republican pie throwing contest continue — or both.

The numbers show 5.4 percent of the total voters were thus bootleggers for Santorum. With 95 percent of the precincts reporting, if we subtract these votes from Santorum and recalculate the totals, Romney's lead jumps to 45 percent against Santorum's 36 percent — a very comfortable Romney win.

But at what cost?

Will this failed strategy cost Santorum? It likely will, and it may already have. After a weekend in which Romney did his level best to torpedo his own momentum by reminding voters of his extreme wealth and odd cluelessness about signaling it to voters, the exit polls also show a curious result on time of decision.

Among those who made up their minds over a month ago, Romney won easily. Among those who made up their mind during February, Santorum holds a decisive edge. But among the 9 percent who made up their minds 24 hours before the election, Romney beat Santorum 38 to 31 percent.

Some of this is likely backlash against Santorum's own gaffes over the weekend, including his populist assault on college education and his statement that John F. Kennedy's iconic speech on separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." A dog whistle to the Baptists in his coalition, Santorum's Kennedy slam probably didn't help him with Catholics, his own coreligionists, who went for Romney by 7 points.

Still, and while causation is hard to isolate in politics, it seems likely that some of those late breakers also reacted against Santorum's direct appeal to the bootleggers. Look for Romney to exploit this opening fiercely in the coming week.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].