What Romney's Mackinac Win Means

Mackinac Island, Michigan — To the surprise of just about no one, Mitt Romney–Michigan-born, son of a former governor, well-financed and well-organized in the Water Wonderland–won the straw vote at the Republican Conference here. With 979 out of more than 2000 Mackinac participants voting, Romney topped the presidential field with 39% of the vote to 27% for Arizona Sen. John McCain. Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.), who has a vigorous cadre of volunteers at events such as this, came in third with 10.8%, edging out Rudy Giuliani (10.62%), who is the GOP front runner for president in most nationwide surveys. Fred Thompson, who drew what BBC Radio’s Anthony Birchley dubbed “the largest scrum” of reporters when he arrived at the conference yesterday, drew 7% of the vote.

As he has done throughout the largest-ever conclave in the history of the half-century old Mackinac Conference, Michigan State GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis emphasized to reporters that, in contrast to the Ames, Iowa “straw vote,” only Michigan Republicans who could prove their residence with identification were permitted to vote in the poll (which was run by the “Hotline” publication).

So, in terms of presidential politics, what does the Romney win mean? Probably not much.

The former Massachusetts governor demonstrated that he could win in a state where he is well-known among party activists and deployed money and organization. Romney himself was accessible, posing for pictures at an ice cream social his campaign hosted, taking a half-hour to answer reporters’ questions on the porch of the Grand Hotel (in contrast to Thompson, who took five questions at his press availability), and Giuliani, who ducked reporters when he left after his dinner address Friday night) and working Mackinac as if it were a national question.

Michigan Romney operatives such as Katie Packer were on hand, as was Tom Rath, former attorney general of New Hampshire and Romney’s top agent in the nation’s first-in-the-nation primary.

McCain’s strong second place showing was perhaps the biggest surprise at Mackinac. Polls conducted by the Market Research Group and veteran Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell showed the Arizonan (who defeated George W. Bush in the 2000 Michigan primary in a dramatic upset) running fourth among the “Big Four” of Republican hopefuls among likely voters in the primary next January 15th. But among the activists, at least, he still packed a wallop. Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob, McCain’s top operative in Michigan, predicted to me this morning that “John will do very, very well” in the poll because of his well-received dinner address last night. Chairman Anuzis, copiously neutral in the presidential race, told reporters that McCan gave “the best speech I have ever heard him give” last night. Whether that speech and his showing in the straw poll can give McCain as much a boost as, say, Mike Huckabee’s second-place showing did in the Ames straw vote remains to be seen.

That Giuliani would come in behind “B-team” contender Paul speaks volumes about the former New York mayor’s campaign in general: with MRG’s just-completed poll showing him now leading the pack in Michigan among likely primary voters, with his dinner address here widely praised, Giuliani just does not, at this time, have the “infantry” to turn out grass-roots voters and win contests such as the Mackinac straw vote. As McCain’s man Yob told me, “Rudy’s got Candace [Macomb-area Rep. Candace Miller, who is Giuliani’s chairman and introduced him at Mackinac] and that’s about it.”

Fred Thompson’s fifth place showing has been blamed on his poorly-received addrress last night and lateness in entering the race. But whether his showing among the activists who came to Mackinac this weekend has any impact on the primary voters who turn out at the polls next January 15th is, as it is for all the candidates who participated in the straw vote, “a reach.”