Michigan 2012 GOP primary: Is Rick Santorum the Jesse Jackson of 2012?

african kings

Reverend Jesse Jackson went into Michigan as the underdog in the 1988 Democratic primary race and emerged as an unlikely frontrunner for the party’s nomination. It was during this primary that Jackson shook up the ‘88 campaign, pulling ahead in delegates, causing both TIME and Newsweek to put him on the cover of their April issues that year. TIME’s cover story captured the mood of the moment. It was entitled, “Taking Jesse Seriously.”

theGrio slideshow: Rev. Jesse Jackson’s top 10 most controversial moments

Tonight, Rick Santorum is competing in a Michigan primary of his own with the potential to cement himself as a new leading contender in a race that seems to still be up for grabs — despite the perception that Mitt Romney is the “inevitable nominee.” The state could give him a boost similar to the one it gave Jackson nearly 24 years ago.

Michigan primaries have historically been “quirky.” Segregationist George Wallace won the state in 1972, while Republican icon Ronald Reagan lost in Michigan — twice. Even the significance of the primary has fluctuated.

According to an editorial in the Detroit News, “The Republican candidate who won a competitive Michigan contest has gone on to be the GOP nominee three of six times since 1972.”

Jackson likely benefited from “crossover” votes from Republicans, who have been long suspected of having cast ballots for him in order to prolong and disrupt the ‘88 Democratic race. That year, the New York Times reported that Jackson’s campaign chalked the victory up in Michigan to the race being a caucus and for being much smaller than other contests.

Republicans in the state that followed, Wisconsin, may have subscribed to the crossover voting theory. A few days before the Wisconsin primary, the Times article reported that then Republican Governor Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement, ‘’I think Jesse Jackson’s exciting. If I was a Democrat, I’d vote for him.” Then Wisconsin Democratic chairman, Suellen Albrecht, accused Thompson of ‘’a deliberate attempt to involve people in the Democratic primary who shouldn’t be there at all.’‘

Winning the most votes in the state won’t necessarily be a clear win for Santorum. Complex rules in place this year make Michigan a state where the winner will not take all the delegates. But as Mitt Romney’s original home state and a symbol of American industry, Michigan could shift the momentum of the race.

Michigan’s unique demographics and constituencies make the state a wild card.
“In a multi-candidate field like that of the Democrats’ this year, with no obvious front-runner, victory goes to the candidate who can most significantly reach outside his geographic base,” read the New York Times’ retrospective of the ‘88 campaign. For his efforts, Jackson beat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and then U.S. Rep Dick Gephardt in a landslide victory with 50 percent of the popular vote.

Jackson, like Santorum, went into the primary as the persistent underdog. His campaign accomplished a come-from-behind victory through registering new voters and through a grassroots efforts that targeted blue collar voters; construction workers, factory laborers and members of the religious community. The campaign made getting people out to vote a top priority, reportedly informing crowds at rallies of the nearest polling locations.

Santorum may be reaching out to the same Michigan voters that Jackson once did. With an open primary, it’s been reported that Santorum’s campaign has funded a barrage of robocalls asking both Republicans and Democrats to “send a message” to Mitt Romney by casting their votes for him.

“Romney supported the bailout for his billionaire buddies but opposed the auto bailout. That was a slap in the face to every Michigan worker,” says an unidentified voice in the Santorum’s calls. Clearly, the aim is to woo working class voters on both sides who have interests in defeating Romney — and partisan Democrats, who might like to upend the GOP 2012 race as Republicans presumably did in ‘88.

It’s fair to say that Jackson’s win in Michigan sent Democratic party leaders into a panic. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the country wasn’t ready to elect an African-American, let alone Rev. Jackson. If Santorum wins Michigan tonight, it would similarly shake up the GOP. A win in Michigan could send him into Super Tuesday with enough momentum to create doubt about Romney, while making it plausible that Santorum could be the new “presumptive” nominee.