After several disappointing showings in the Midwest, including marginal victories in Ohio and in his legacy state of Michigan, Mitt Romney faced what pre-primary hype billed as a “must-win” contest in Illinois. Whether the stakes truly were that dire is debatable, but with 54 delegates and symbolic momentum at stake, last night’s primary was indeed pivotal. In the end, Romney scored a comfortable victory, one that could yet go a long way toward establishing the aura of inevitability that has eluded his campaign to date.
It was a victory sealed in the state's suburbs. Key to Romney’s success in Illinois was the strong support he drew in the state’s more urban areas, particularly the five mostly suburban counties around Chicago. That proved significant, as exit polls showed that over 70 percent of Illinois’ primary voters hailed from the suburbs. Romney won these voters by a resounding 20 percent, according to exit polls.
Electability proved Romney’s other major asset. Among Republicans who saw beating Barack Obama as their top priority, three quarters supported Romney. The perception that Romney is best positioned to take on Obama also explains why he was able to win among all stripes of Republicans except those who identified as “very conservative.” While it’s too early to call this inevitability, it does point to a growing consensus among Republicans that, for all his flaws, Romney is the man for the job.
While Romney resonated in the state's suburban enclaves, the state's demographics did not favor Rick Santorum. Illinois’ Republican electorate has fewer evangelical voters than the Southern primaries where Santorum has recently enjoyed success. The state’s primary goers also placed less emphasis on religious kinship with their candidate, something that had benefited Santorum in races in the Deep South.
Even if Illinois was not natural territory for Santorum, however, he did not help his own cause. There is a growing consensus that Santorum hurt his chances of making headway against Romney by getting bogged down in debates about contraception that many Republicans consider a distraction at best. “Santorum has allowed himself to get off message on issues such as banning pornography, abortion and other social issues that Illinois Republicans don't see as major priorities,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told Front Page.
Santorum may have sealed his fate with a few self-inflicted wounds. Even before a single vote was cast last night, Santorum had rendered himself ineligible to compete in four of the state’s congressional districts after failing to qualify for 10 of the delegates up for grabs. Yet another miscalculation was Santorum's ill-chosen comment earlier this week that “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be.”
In fairness to Santorum, his point – that the purpose of his campaign transcended the focus on single issues like unemployment – was a reasonable one. But it also played directly into the Romney campaign’s determined efforts to brand Santorum as an “economic lightweight” who could not be trusted to preside over the country’s economic revival. Nor did it endear him in Illinois, a state that has the eighth highest unemployment rate in the country and ranks 48th in job creation. Accordingly, primary voters who named the economy as their top concern overwhelmingly backed Romney.
A victory or at least another close decision in Illinois could have helped Santorum solidify his status as a serious contender to Romney and stripped away the veneer of inevitability that the Romney campaign has been touting. Instead, Romney's decisive margin of victory will help bolster his campaign's assurance that, despite their previous reservations, Romney is the one that Republicans have been waiting for.
The other bad news for Santorum is that, with the exception of Saturday's Louisiana primary, the upcoming political landscape largely favors Romney. April will see the race shift to the Northeast, where electorates resemble those of the suburbs in Illinois. A series of Romney sweeps will make it difficult for Santorum to maintain that he remains a viable candidate.
Given the fluid state of the Republican race so far, it would be premature to declare Romney the nominee. But as Santorum fades, Romney may at last be set for a spell of sustained dominance. It would surely rank as one of the sweeter ironies of this election season if Obama’s home state helped put him over the top.
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