After barely squeaking by in Michigan and Ohio, Mitt Romney offered the first truly convincing performance in a midwestern industrial state on March 20, when he easily won the GOP primary in Illinois. The former Massachusetts governor and early front runner in the race for the GOP nomination took 46.7% of the votes to Rick Santorum’s 35% (Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich came distant third and fourth.)
It was a big night for Romney, who, thus far, has been having problems connecting with Republican voters outside his typical constituency (wealthier, more highly educated suburbanites who are fiscally conservatives but not necessarily socially conservatives.) As expected, he won by a landslide in the suburban counties surrounding Chicago while losing to Santorum in rural southern and western Illinois. But, for once, Romney rallied a more diverse assortment of demographic groups. He received the overwhelming support of voters who say beating President Barack Obama in November is their first priority (74% of them voted for him,) but also fared better than usual with conservative Republicans, Tea Party supporters, less educated and less affluent voters, who had been leaning more toward Santorum (or Gingrich.)
The state of Illinois has a highly symbolic value. It is where President Obama hails from (at least in terms of his political career) and is a traditional bellwether for Republican politics. The more moderate make-up of the GOP electorate here mirrors closely its composition at the national level. For example, only 43% of Illinois Republicans who went to the polls on Tuesday were self-described evangelical Christian, a huge drop from Mississippi’s 83%.
But Illinois also matters in terms of delegates. Romney took the bulk of them, further increasing his lead in the overall count. His total now stands at 563. Santorum is second with 263 delegates and Gingrich third with 135.
This year’s GOP primary dilemma is all in these numbers. While Romney is clearly ahead of everyone else and probably impossible for his rivals to catch, he is still less than halfway through the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Because most state primaries award delegates on a proportional basis (there are only a few winner-take-all competitions,) Romney still has a long way to go before he becomes the official nominee. And the threat of a brokered convention, where no candidate has a majority of the delegates, remains. This situation offers few incentives for the other contenders to drop out, even though their chances of success are slim.
“We won the areas that conservatives and Republicans populate,” Santorum said during his concession speech after the Illinois vote. “We’ve got five weeks until a big win and a big delegate sweep in Pennsylvania. We must go out and fight this fight.”
The southern state of Louisiana goes to the polls on Saturday. Santorum needs a strong showing there to put an end to a disappointing few days (last week, he also lost badly the Puerto Rico primary.) But the calendar in April, with votes taking place in a number of moderate East Coast states (Maryland, Delaware, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania,) is shaping up as a possible Romney’s slam-dunk.
During his victory speech in a Chicago suburb Tuesday night, Romney abandoned obscure talks of “delegate math” and “inevitability,” which hardly excite voters, and pivoted back to his strongest suit, a direct attack on Obama right in the heart of the president’s home state. “We still believe in America,” he said, “and we deserve a president who believes in us, and I believe in the American people.”