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.


Mitt Romney finally has the large, decisive victory that had long eluded him. And he achieved it with a total collapse from Newt Gingrich’s vote, as the former speaker finished behind Ron Paul with less than 10 percent of the vote. The Santorum campaign had long said that if Newt were gone their man could win, but there was precious little evidence of that last night. And without those votes to call upon, the Santorum brain trust will finally have to come to grips with their candidate’s limited appeal, or else concede that Rick is running merely to lead the conservative movement rather than win the GOP nomination.

I’ve been harping on these points on NRO since February 7, the date of the Santorum trifecta, but they are worth repeating. Rick Santorum simply does not win demographics beyond the hard-core base. Last night he carried very conservative voters by 48 percent to 37 percent, evangelicals by 46 to 39, voters who never attended college by 43 to 36, and those who said a candidate’s religious beliefs matter a great deal by 51 to 31. He lost strong tea-party supporters by 42 to 41; he lost among all other income and educational groups; and, most important, he was demolished among somewhat-conservative voters by 55 to 31.

Santorum’s strong voter groups make up much smaller parts of the electorate in Illinois than in other states, especially in the South and border states, but a candidate cannot win the nomination without winning a primary outside the South. There’s nothing in the polls from the last few races that suggests Santorum can do that, and there’s no evidence the candidate thinks he needs to change.

This doesn’t mean he’ll drop out — far from it. He’ll likely win Saturday’s primary in Louisiana by a comfortable margin and he’ll be competitive in Wisconsin on April 3 — Wisconsin’s GOP electorate is much more rural and less wealthy than that of Illinois. Lots of southern and border states vote in May, so Santorum can stage a resurgence if he stays in. But unless he changes his demographic appeal, the race will be formally over after Texas votes on May 29 or, at the latest, after California and New Jersey vote on June 6.

Romney has shown remarkable strength so far in major metropolitan areas and pockets elsewhere containing educated voters. He has yet to lose a county containing a state’s capital in a contested primary (Missouri doesn’t count), and in any contested state he will win the county (and usually the surrounding suburbs) of any city with a major-league-baseball franchise. In Mississippi, two of the “rural” counties he carried were, on closer inspection, the homes to Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and last night he carried the home county of the University of Illinois. He runs away with voters earning more than $100,000 a year. Charles Murray’s Super ZIPs and others among the last decade’s economic winners are voting for Mitt in droves.

But general elections are not won solely in the leafy suburbs of the meritocratic class. They are won in the middle-class neighborhoods and small towns that provide the bulk of GOP general-election votes. And even last night, Mitt Romney showed weakness among these voters, particularly those of southern heritage. Romney carried voters earning less than $100,000 a year by slim margins, and he was shellacked in far-downstate Illinois (“Little Egypt”), which was settled by southerners over 150 years ago.

To those who dismiss this point as mere psephological quibbling: Let me introduce you to Virginia. I don’t think any serious analyst thinks Romney can beat Obama without carrying Virginia, and a Republican coalition in the Old Dominion rests on carrying Southern Baptist rural “Old Virginia” by large margins while running even in the “new Virginia” of the D.C. and Richmond suburbs and the Newport News/Virginia Beach region. Every vote here matters. If Romney can’t count on rural southerners to vote for him in huge numbers — margin and turnout — he will not carry Virginia and hence he will not win the White House.  

A new Quinnipiac poll shows President Obama leading Romney 50–42 in Virginia. This is not an outlier poll: The two prior polls in Virginia in the last six weeks also show Obama with a strong lead.

So Romney should savor his hard-won victory in Illinois, but he should also look hard at the results and see the warning signs. He says he wants to start focusing the campaign on President Obama; perhaps he should take his own advice and start to figure out how to shore up his weakness, while he still has time.

— Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s amusing to see pundits declare the Illinois primary a game-changer when it’s the kind of state Romney should carry, and when all it did was confirm the obvious: Mitt Romney is the highly probable nominee. Romney can’t ignore the remaining contests, and he has to perform as expected or better. Yet what truly matters now is how Romney finishes out a tough season and prepares to push the reset button at his convention. Will he limp or soar into Tampa? Republicans are tired of watching an unscathed Obama while GOP fratricide grabs the headlines, but that part of the process may be coming to a close.

Going forward, Romney helps his cause by focusing almost entirely on President Obama, as he did in his well-written victory speech. He can’t control Santorum or Gingrich; they could stay in until June, perhaps winning the occasional contest. But Romney can mainly ignore them safely at this point.

In addition, Romney needs a partner on the campaign trail — arguably a lot more than most nominees-in-waiting in recent decades. No, not his wife Ann, but a strong, qualified vice-presidential pick to energize him and broaden his appeal. Romney should consider flouting conventional wisdom and choosing a VP shortly after the primaries conclude. He’s already running against a completed Democratic ticket. Why not get some help ASAP? A wise veep choice (translation: no white-bread sandwiches) could reframe the campaign and alter Romney’s bland narrative.

— Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics, and University Professor of Politics, at the University of Virginia.


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