When it comes to clinching the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney has struggled, to say the least. A long line of “anti-Romney” candidates have put up stiff resistance, and a long string of gaffes and flip-flops have kept the former governor from gaining consistent momentum. But last week, Mitt wiped the etch-a-sketch clean and pulled out a win in the Illinois primary.
To most, Romney’s victory didn’t come as much of a surprise. Illinois tends to lean left as a whole, and even the more conservative regions have a relatively moderate base – much too moderate for the likes of Rick Santorum. Given its complicated and diverse political landscape, however, Illinois was seen by some as Santorum’s last bastion of hope. An upset over Romney would sustain Rick’s momentum and throw Mitt’s campaign into even further uncertainty. If Santorum could win over the more conservative regions of central and southern Illinois, he would have a chance to balance out the moderate voters of Chicago and Cook County.
But that’s not what happened. Romney won handily, snatching up 43 delegates to Santorum’s 10, and Romney’s ultimate nomination became all the more inevitable. While a win for Mitt came as no shock, the details of how he won may have implications for the remainder of the race and, ultimately, for November’s general election.
The political geography of Illinois offers an intriguing electoral situation. In the northeast corner of the state, Chicago and Cook County constitute the majority of Democratic voters. Expanding out from that liberal epicenter, voting patterns grow more moderate throughout the surrounding “Collar Counties,” and from there, the more southern counties grow increasingly conservative.
Santorum’s best hope was to sweep these southern, “downstate” counties and negate Romney’s advantage amongst Chicagoans. Conservatives in Illinois have only grown more conservative in recent years, and John McCain actually carried more Illinois counties than Obama in 2008, despite losing the state as a whole. In states like Michigan and Ohio, Santorum used his popularity among the rural, religious right to give Romney a serious run for his money, forcing a surprisingly close, two-man race in both primaries. In short, Santorum had a shot to pull off the upset in Illinois.
But it wasn’t even close. Romney came through with a double-digit victory and even managed to win among groups that typically tend to support Santorum. Mitt carried the vote in almost every category, including Tea Party supporters, while Rick had an advantage only among the very conservative and very religious.
Granted, Illinois has gone blue in every general election since 1992, so it’s no surprise that the more moderate GOP candidate would find favor in this primary. But until recently, it remained to be seen if Romney could capture the interest of the nation’s rural, religious, conservative base. In Illinois, he finally seemed to break through the divide, drawing support from almost every demographic.
It is still unclear, however, whether Romney has found genuine favor among conservatives or whether this is simply a sign of reluctant acceptance from a weary Republican Party. In the Ohio primary, for example, Romney barely escaped with 38% of the popular vote, an advantage of less than one percentage point over Santorum. By contrast, John McCain won the 2008 primary with a decisive 60% of the Ohio vote. He then went on to narrowly lose the swing state in the general election, coming up only 4% short of Obama. Romney could lose by a great deal more if he fails to generate more support in states like Ohio.
In Illinois, Romney earned about 47% of the vote, similar to McCain in 2008. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, Illinois’ political landscape should have little bearing on the general election. Obama easily carried his home state four years ago, and given recent political trends, this November is unlikely to yield different results.
But after a confidence boost in Illinois, and with his nomination all but inevitable, Romney should have little trouble going forward throughout the remainder of the primary; Republicans have all but accepted him as their best chance to unseat Obama. Unfortunately for Mitt, acceptance isn’t the same as enthusiasm. If Romney cannot generate decisive primary victories as McCain did in 2008, he may face an uphill battle in the general election.