Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."
(CNN) -- Pity poor Rick Santorum. Tuesday's Michigan primary finally proved that he is the stronger candidate to take on Obama. Yet he still lost to the lesser Republican.
That's the kind of paradox that you only find in politics -- a business that makes the Oscars look sophisticated and self-aware.
The votes that Romney and Santorum drew matched their public personas. In the last two weeks, Mitt has been branded as a "Massachusetts moderate" -- who thinks it's perfectly normal for a patriotic woman to own "a couple of Cadillacs." In contrast Santorum presents as a "working class" conservative who "almost threw up" at the thought of separating church and state and who implies that college is for snobs. Together, they are the rational brain and the rumbling gut of the Republican Party.
CNN's exit polls suggest that Michigan voters pretty much broke according to how they relate to those clichés. Romney won self-identified Republicans, 47-37 percent. He dominated among people earning more than $100,000 per year and his voters were ideological middle-of-the-roaders: people who think abortion should remain legal in some circumstances, "moderate" supporters of the Tea Party, the "somewhat conservative" in outlook, yada yada, yawn, yawn.
In contrast, Santorum's voters were a carnival of die-hards: the bitter unemployed, the very religious, ardent prolifers and the fervent Tea Partiers. The reason Santorum's result was so close to Romney's was that so many of these firebrands turned out to vote.
Fifty-three percent of participants self-described as supporters of the Tea Party; compared with just 34 percent in South Carolina. A narrow majority of voters in Michigan said that the religious beliefs of a candidate mattered to the way they voted. About 1 in 8 voters identified abortion as the issue that concerned them the most, and 6 in 10 thought it should be illegal in most cases.
But the other reason why Santorum did so well (despite being outspent 2 to 1 by his opponent) was that he benefited from the Michigan primary being open. Democrats comprised 9 percent of the electorate and independents, 31 percent. Santorum took 53 percent of the former vote and drew even (with 33 percent) on the latter.
There will be a lot of debate in the next few days about why Democrats and independents were so drawn to Santorum. The consensus is that they were spoilers out to deny Romney the nomination. Aside from some individual testimony to that effect, I'm not sure this can be proven. After all, Santorum has been pitching himself at blue-collar workers for some time and it's notable that he won union members 45-26 percent. These are the famous "Reagan Democrats," the unionized auto workers living in suburban Detroit who flipped from Democrat to Republican in 1980 because they were so attracted to Ronald Reagan's stance on God, guns, and taxes.
There aren't as many Reagan Democrats as there once were, but it seems likely that Santorum drew them into a potentially powerful conservative coalition. That would seem to be confirmed by a USA Today poll that showed that Santorum is the only Republican currently leading President Obama in a hypothetical November race.
Santorum enjoys the confidence of significant numbers of non-Republican populists precisely because of his reputation as an antediluvian conservative. In an age when politicians seem manufactured and packaged to appeal to a shrinking center-ground, Santorum has stood out this season as a man of his word. That word might well by lifted from a particularly angry passage in Leviticus -- but it sounds so much better than the bland platitudes that fall from Mitt's mouth. It's telling that Santorum performed well in Michigan among people looking for "strong moral character." That's what he's selling on the campaign trail.
Romney did in Michigan what he needed to do all along: shore up the Republican vote and break the back of his biggest conservative rival. This sets him up nicely for a sweep on Super Tuesday (although Ohio and Georgia will be competitive).
But in the hour of Mitt's victory, Santorum's own portion of the vote reminded us that Romney remains unpopular with large swathes of the conservative electorate and the swing vote. Santorum could have won "the folks" back over to the GOP. Megabucks Mitt could still lose them for good.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.