Tuesday’s vote in Illinois was pretty emphatic: Mitt Romney: 47%; Rick Santorum: 35%; Ron Paul: 9%; Newt Gingrich: 8%.
Although Santorum and Gingich will soldier on to Louisiana this weekend, with polls showing Santorum enjoying a big lead (12 points) in the bayou, Romney’s win in Illinois last night effectively ended the hopes of his rivals in the GOP contest.
Santorum’s remarkable surge in January and February began to fizzle over the past couple of weeks as he continued to focus on social issues rather than economics. The commentariat may continue to hope for and speculate about a “brokered convention,” based on improbable scenarios, but the reality is Romney now has a clear and easy path to win the GOP nomination.
First, Romney may claim the Republican nomination at the convention in Tampa without having won any of the states in the Deep South. Gingrich won Georgia and South Carolina; Santorum won Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee and will likely sweep Louisiana this weekend.
Although none of these states will vote for Barack Obama in November, losing all of them does call into question Romney’s ability to unite and lead the GOP. If Gingrich and Santorum drop out of the race in the next couple of weeks (both vow not to), Romney would be able to win at least North Carolina and Arkansas, both of which hold primaries in May.
Second, Romney lost the evangelical vote once again and failed among those who are “very conservative.” Among white evangelicals, Santorum beat Romney 46% to 39%. When the Republicans finally meet at their convention in August to formally crown Romney and deliver a well-orchestrated pitch to the country, the evangelical wing of the party will likely be somewhat disgruntled.
This could result in a stronger shift to the right on social issues in order to appease the Santorum/Gingrich evangelical voters. Normally in an election, the convention is a time to pivot the entire message to the general public. Romney will have a harder time achieving that than past nominees because he’ll have to pander to a dissatisfied hard-right.
Third, although Romney won Illinois handily, almost a quarter (22%) of the state’s GOP voters said the economy was “improving.” This statistic should concern the Republicans generally, as the perceived direction and momentum of the economy will in large part determine the general election vote. If even a sizable number of Republicans are acknowledging that the economy is improving, it will be hard for Romney to make his case that he is better equipped than Obama to manage the nation’s finances.
Finally, although primaries are always seasons of division within political parties, the Republican race this year has been notable for its extreme vitriol. If you recall 2008, when the Democratic primary came down to Hillary Clinton and Obama at the end, the attacks from Clinton were basically about Obama’s lack of experience, not lack of competence or questionable moral character.
The non-Romneys and their super-PACs in this GOP race have been leveling much more serious charges against the eventual nominee. They claim that Romney has no “core” and that his signature legislative accomplishment in Massachusetts — health care reform — was a grave error. Nominees always arrived at their conventions somewhat bruised, but Mitt Romney will be more seriously injured than most at his convention.