Michigan primary follies 

The mess is nothing new — Henry Ford won twice

Suddenly, Michigan's presidential primary may actually turn out to mean something this year. If Mitt Romney loses, in the state where he was born and won easily in 2008, he could be finished.

Those behind-the-scenes strategists and money men who have been backing him in the belief that he has the best (if not only) chance to beat President Obama, may reluctantly conclude that the rank and file just aren't willing to buy their plastic Ken doll, and turn elsewhere.

That, as Curt Guyette ably explains elsewhere in this week's cover story, is a situation that could lead to anything from a dark horse candidate to a brokered convention. "I never believed this would happen," Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, told me. 

Now a word of caution — it is far from certain that Romney is really on the ropes. Polls in a primary contest are all but worthless, especially those taken more than a few days before the voting.

Most people have jobs and lives and only pay sporadic attention to politics and elections anyway, especially primaries. The one thing that's relatively certain is that most registered voters won't vote.

Won't vote at all, that is. That means that those who do turn up to vote in February tend to be the strongly committed and often stridently ideological, along with a few party faithful and a dwindling number who think voting in any election is their duty.

Fanatics do vote in primaries, which is why Rick Santorum has been doing so well. This is a man who is not only against abortion, he is against contraception, mothers having careers, and has equated gay relationships with "man on dog" sex.

Santorum looks like a nice, charming, unthreatening youngish man, who promises to return us to the well-scrubbed world of the family TV shows of the 1950s, a world that never actually existed.

But he really is right-wing religious extremism in a sweater vest, and terribly frightening to those who look behind his soothing words. 

However, he doesn't have the money or the organization, nor do the professionals really think Santorum can be elected president. Ballenger thinks it possible, even likely, that things can be turned around for Romney in time to give him a victory and shove him toward Super Tuesday on March 6. 

But regardless of who wins, the good news is that the primary apparently won't be an irrelevant farce this year. Four years ago, Michigan politicians of both parties conspired to make our presidential process the laughingstock of the nation.

Not for the first time, either. Here's what they did. Top Michigan Democrats and Republicans wanted to look big, get a piece of the action, and impress their buds on the national scene.

Saul Anuzis, the then-GOP chair, had ambitions of being elected chair of the national party. 

On the other side, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Democratic State Committeewoman Debbie Dingell and State Party Chair-for-Life Mark Brewer figured Hillary Clinton was the certain nominee. They wanted to ingratiate themselves with her. So they broke party rules and held the primary in the middle of January.

The National Democratic Party was furious. They stripped Michigan of all its delegates. (They gave half of them back months later, when that was utterly meaningless.) Every serious Democratic candidate kept their names off the ballot, except for Clinton.

National Republicans weren't happy either, and took half Michigan's delegates away, but otherwise didn't interfere.

Not surprisingly, Mitt Romney, who had not yet shown any desire to let the auto industry die, won, mainly on the strength of his family name. Less than two months later, his campaign was over.

The only thing Michigan got out of its early primary was the distinction of being the only state in the nation that didn't have Obama on the ballot. Say, were you surprised that Granholm wasn't even offered a job as White House doorkeeper afterward?

Actually, Michigan's primary has been Massasauga-rattlesnake pit pretty much from the start, largely because the politicians keep tampering with it. Primary elections first came about during the Progressive era a century ago, when muckraking journalists advanced the idea that the people should have a say in picking the nominees.

So who do you suppose won the very first Michigan GOP primary, back in 1916? Why, Henry Ford, of course! He wasn't a candidate, but, hey, he provided lots of good-paying jobs.

Just to show our good bipartisan spirit and a continuing devotion to the cause of making Michigan irrelevant, Henry Ford won the Michigan Democratic primary eight years later.

When the Great Depression hit, Michigan abolished its primary, largely because we could no longer afford it, and the bosses went back to picking convention delegates and candidates in smoke-filled rooms. However, then came 1968, when the will of the people was pretty much totally ignored by Democratic bosses.

That led to a revolt that brought back the primary in 1972, in Michigan and other states, and we had a far higher turnout, in both actual votes and percentage turning out, than in any year since.

Guess who won the Democratic primary by a landslide? George Wallace, the racist, segregationist governor of Alabama. This was largely a sympathy vote; he had been shot and almost killed the day before. Partly, in a sign of further trouble to come, the Democratic primary was also flooded with Republican-leaning voters.

That was terribly embarrassing for both labor, which wanted Hubert Humphrey, and the anti-war liberals, who wanted George McGovern. Four years later, Michigan's primary was briefly relevant. 

In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly edged Mo Udall, and Gerald Ford walloped Ronald Reagan, which helped him hang on to the nomination. But by 1980, Democrats got cold feet, again.

They switched to a caucus process so complicated few could understand it. Meanwhile, Republicans stuck to the primary, and in a significant contest that has almost been forgotten now, George Bush I managed to badly beat Ronald Reagan. That led to him being chosen vice-president at the GOP convention in Detroit that summer ...

Which process eventually begat both Presidents Bush I and II, with the accompanying disastrous consequences for the nation. Since then, the state has lurched around like a drunken zombie when it came to picking national convention delegates. Sometimes both parties have had primaries. Sometimes, neither did.

More often, Republicans had a primary; Democrats fiddled with various caucus schemes that satisfied nobody. Jesse Jackson's folks bussed in Detroiters from senior centers and "won" the 1988 Democratic caucuses. This year, there will, in fact be a Democratic primary, but their non-democratic party leaders will ignore it, and pick their delegates at May 5 caucuses instead.

(God forbid somebody not in the in-crowd gets to attend the national convention in Charlotte, N.C.!)

So what should a normal, well-intentioned citizen do about voting in the Michigan primary, Feb. 28? Well, if you worry a lot about man-on-dog sex or want to let the auto industry die, the GOP primary has attractive choices for you. There's even Ron Paul, for those voters who swoon before pictures of Ayn Rand.

However, you could also cast a symbolic vote for the man who has been the voice of reason, really did save the domestic auto industry, and whose policies probably saved the nation from another Great Depression. He also sacrificed control of half of Congress to giving us a potentially decent health care system — something we are being told incessant lies about by those who would take it from us.

That's who I plan to vote for. Your choice is up to you.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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