Romney’s Big Night
Is he starting to pull away from his rivals?

Mitt Romney and his wife Ann celebrate victory in Illinois, March 20, 2012.


Romney won big in Illinois. We asked our experts what his victory means for the future of the campaign.

Romney’s big victory last night is important, both because Illinois is a large state and because he needs moments like this one to pour cold water on the Santorum brushfires — the ones that threaten to break out every time the Pennsylvania senator outperforms expectations and the Massachusetts governor receives fewer votes than forecast.

If the Romney campaign is smart, it will stop harping on its advantage in the delegate math and try to find a better message to push out among voters. Victory in Illinois provides just such an opportunity. Romney can argue that Republicans and conservative voters in the mostly blue state are properly focused on victory by virtue of their minority. The narrative should go something like this: “Sensing that Romney is the most competitive candidate against President Obama in a race for independent voters, they are signing up for the skills and substance of a man with the economic gravitas to tackle America’s most pressing problems.” That would be a lot better than grimly reminding conservatives that dread inevitability favors the governor and that everyone will be a lot happier when they get used to the idea.

Instead, though, we will likely continue to hear calls for Santorum and others to get out of the way so Romney can concentrate his fire on Obama. Nothing stops him from doing that now. Republican voters ultimately care about which candidate can topple the greatest threat to limited government since the 1960s and LBJ. If the voters were sold on Romney in that regard, the race would have been over some time ago.

For Santorum, there is little reason to consider bowing out at this point. He will continue to win delegates and may even have some big wins ahead of him. If he rolls into the convention with the delegates Romney needs to complete his victory equation, he will have the chance to advocate for the ideas he cherishes (such as religious liberty, and who better than a member of an oft-despised sect to carry that flag?). Or if Realpolitik is your game, a greater number of delegates increases the probability that Santorum can secure an important position for himself — either on the ticket or in the cabinet. Either possibility would be highly welcome for a still-young man with a political career that had become apparently moribund too soon.

In any case, I hope that if he loses, he chooses against beating a path to the broadcasting studios of Fox News. That option may be good for Fox’s ratings, but it doesn’t help build political institutions. Imagine if the same choice had been open to a discouraged Winston Churchill in advance of his greatest triumphs!

— Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and the forthcoming Political Science: A Student’s Guide.

Mitt Romney was bound to do well in Illinois last night, for several reasons. First, his money advantage gave him a huge edge on the airwaves of metropolitan Chicago. Second, the demographics of the state favored him: Illinois Republicans are more urban and suburban than those in Michigan and Ohio, and slightly more upscale. These are the voters Romney has been winning since the start of the primary season, so the edge belonged to him.

The exit polls show that Romney held his own with his core groups. That is important: Without a substantial shift in these major blocs (suburban, upscale, relatively moderate voters), there is no way Santorum will come close to Romney in terms of votes or delegates. The electoral math is simply undeniable: The Mid-Atlantic states and California, where demographics favor Romney, are still to vote; plus, the big delegate hauls remaining in the South — North Carolina and Texas — are more like Florida than Mississippi, full of upscale, suburban voters who have typically backed Romney.

On the other hand, Romney must make inroads into Santorum’s vote to put this away before June. He did not do that last night: Rural voters, very conservative voters, and the socioeconomically downscale still backed Santorum. 

Thus, the Pennsylvania primary in late April is key. The demographic mix will favor Romney, but it is Santorum’s home state. If Romney wins there, game over. If Santorum wins, then the race will probably drag out until June.

— Jay Cost is the author of the forthcoming Spoiled Rotten: The Story of How the Democratic Party Embraced Special Interests, Abandoned the Public Good, and Came to Stand for Everything It Once Opposed.