Mitt Romney scored a decisive victory over Rick Santorum in the Illinois primary on Tuesday, tightening his grip on the Republican front-runner’s slot and improving his chances of locking up the nomination by the end of the presidential primary season in June.
Santorum, meantime, suffered a serious setback in his effort to send the GOP battle spilling onto the floor of the nominating convention in late August.
Turnout in the Chicago metro area, where most of the state’s voters live, was said to be light, despite clear skies and record-high temperatures in the mid-80s. But Romney carried the largely suburban collar counties around Chicago by 20 percentage points, according to exit poll data, building a lead that Santorum was unable to overcome in other parts of the state.
The Republican race has increasingly solidified into a divisive contest between the party’s monied interests, which overwhelmingly back Romney, and the conservative grass-roots base, which has favored the more meagerly financed and loosely organized Santorum.
One of the biggest challenges facing Romney, if he becomes the presumptive nominee, will be to bridge that divide and begin to heal a party that faces a tough general election fight in the fall against an incumbent president.
But fierce opposition from Santorum, who is unlikely to surrender any time soon, may frustrate that effort. So, too will the continued candidacies of Rep. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, who finished far back in Illinois, as they have in the vast majority of the delegate contests.
Romney performed better with a number of voter groups in Illinois than he did in nearby Ohio, where he narrowly edged Santorum in a key primary two weeks ago. Among them were voters who earned more than $100,000, a slightly larger slice of the electorate than in Ohio; and voters living in rural areas, who Santorum carried by a smaller margin than in Ohio. He carried all ideological groups except those who called themselves “very conservative.”
The Illinois voters were somewhat less religiously oriented than in comparable states, another factor that benefited Romney. Only 4 in 10 voters were evangelical Christians, compared with nearly half the Ohio primary electorate.
Romney also fared better than in earlier states among Republicans who saw him as the candidate with the best chance to defeat President Obama in the fall. And in a striking departure, he narrowly led Santorum among voters who “best understand the problems of average Americans,” a category in which the wealthy Romney has struggled this year.
His win was Romney’s third in a major Midwestern industrial battleground. Barring an unlikely reversal in later primaries, it demonstrated, perhaps conclusively, that money has won out this year over grass-roots fervor.
Illinois, President Obama’s home state, is unlikely to be in play in this fall’s election. But for the first time in many years, it rose to a pivotal role in a Republican presidential campaign.
Repeating a pattern that has played out since January, Romney’s campaign in the state reflected his lopsided advantage in ad dollars and organization. The former Massachusetts governor didn’t take the state for granted, however. He added a quick stop in the Chicago area Friday, followed by campaign stops across the state in the 60 hours leading up to the election.
Santorum, by contrast, diverted on Sunday to Louisiana, which doesn’t vote until next weekend, after spending time in Puerto Rico in a fruitless effort to keep Romney from winning all of those delegates in Sunday’s primary.
Compounding Santorum’s vulnerability in a state far less conservative than those he has carried, he was all but invisible in the Chicago media market, which reaches more than half the state’s electorate and is crucial to winning in the nation’s fifth most populous state. By one estimate, Romney outspent him by 21 to 1 there.
As a result, Santorum’s presence in the TV ad wars around Chicago was primarily as the butt of a relentless barrage of negative commercials, financed by Romney and his “super PAC.” They blistered the former senator around the clock as an “economic lightweight” who lacks the executive experience to be president.
Long before the polls closed, Santorum had left the state for Pennsylvania, which he represented in Congress for 16 years. His decision to spend election night at Gettysburg signaled the start of what could well be the conclusive battle of the GOP race: the April 24 Pennsylvania primary.
The campaign calendar offers few opportunities before then for Santorum to apply the brakes to Romney’s momentum with victories of his own. The sole exceptions are Louisiana, where he is favored, and the Wisconsin primary on April 3, which could be a close fight if he has the resources to engage Romney there.
Santorum has been talking up his prospects in Louisiana and Wisconsin in recent campaign speeches. But Pennsylvania looms as an increasingly important test. Losing in his old backyard could effectively end any credible chance for Santorum to oppose Romney’s slow but steady march to the nomination.
A Republican contest that moved from the winter chill of Iowa and New Hampshire through 31 contests in other states and U.S. territories has now become less a matter of momentum and more a battle over delegates.
Romney has more than twice as many delegates as Santorum, his nearest pursuer, according to the latest Associate Press projection. But he still is less than halfway to the 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination and has lost 10 contests to Santorum and two to Gingrich.
With 22 states and the District of Columbia yet to vote, Romney still needed to win well over half the remaining delegates to be assured of the nomination.
Many of those delegates won’t be selected until June, however, when six states, including California, with the largest delegation of all, hold primaries. That makes it unlikely that Romney could become the presumptive nominee before then, though if he keeps racking up big primary victories, the contest could effectively conclude sooner.