Politics & Policy

Romney’s Big Night

Is he starting to pull away from his rivals?

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

 

HUNTER BAKER

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.

 

JAY COST

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.

 JIM GERAGHTY

It’s not quite over . . . but it’s effectively over.

Those of us who haven’t run for office can only imagine the strain, stress, irritation, and heartbreak of a campaign that doesn’t quite get it done down the stretch. It’s easy for outsiders to argue that a particular contender should drop out; we haven’t devoted years of our lives — our entire careers, arguably — to working towards one goal, only to find it unattainable after some too-fleeting moments of glory.

With that sympathy in mind: It’s hard to see what Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum are accomplishing by remaining in the race at this point. Ron Paul was supposed to ride caucuses to dark-horse status, and he’s garnered about 70 delegates so far. Newt Gingrich has won two states, is apparently out of funds, and spent the weekend admiring the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington instead of campaigning in Illinois.

Rick Santorum has defied all expectations, but he’s still down considerably (124 delegates, under his debatable assertion of the count), and the past few weeks have shown limited appeal: If he’s the candidate of the working-class Rust Belt, why has he lost Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois? If he’s the preeminent anti-Romney candidate, why would he evenly split Gingrich’s supporters if the former speaker dropped out of the race?

Worse, Santorum and his campaign have responded in recent weeks with a litany of complaints: Fox News is biased against him. Everyone from the Associated Press to the Republican National Committee is counting the delegates incorrectly. Romney’s getting an extra delegate out of Michigan is comparable to the crimes of the Iranian regime. Romney and Ron Paul have a backroom deal. Yes, yes, Senator, it’s everyone’s fault except yours.

These guys can keep running, but . . . the final result isn’t likely to change much.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on National Review Online.

 

CHARLOTTE HAYS

A presidential race got off the ground last night in the land of Lincoln. If Mitt Romney goes on to win the White House, Illinois will be remembered as the place Mitt found his voice — not to mention coming up with nearly half the delegates needed to cinch the nomination.

In a victory speech that came closer to a stem-winder than any previous Romney speech, the former Massachusetts governor hit the theme of freedom, speaking of “free markets and free people” and noting that the American economy “runs on freedom.”

“Our economic freedom will be on the ballot,” Romney said, finally moving beyond saying elect-me-because-I-am-a-technocrat-who-can-fix-things. He showed that he really does know what is at stake in this election. Of course, he had had a great moment earlier. “If you’re looking for free stuff . . . vote for the other guy,” he told a student who wanted free contraceptives.

There was a horrible moment when it appeared that Romney, who did stumble over words several times, was bumbling towards one of his class-conscious goofs. It was when he recalled that his father hadn’t been to college (no, Mitt, no!). But Romney quickly righted himself and got to his theme for the evening: freedom, the issue that will define the presidential campaign.

Rick Santorum, who came in far behind Romney, courageously — and not surprisingly — took credit for Romney’s freedom theme. Santorum seemed tired. One sentence caught my attention: He said he would “pull up government by its roots.” In a way, Santorum’s radicalism is the mirror image of that of the current occupant of the White House. Santorum kept talking about how the country was “birthed” by the struggles of the 1860s. But it was Romney’s campaign that was birthed last night.

— Charlotte Hays is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

HUGH HEWITT

Ohio State has still beaten Michigan in The Game seven out of the past eight years.

George W. Bush still won Florida in 2000.

Jimmy Brown is still the most dominating back in NFL history.

Truman still beat Dewey.

The Soviet Union still won the Gold in basketball in 1972.

And Mitt Romney is still going to be the GOP nominee in 2012.

Sports, like politics, has many inconvenient truths and stubborn facts that various subsets of fans/supporters just don’t like to deal with. Wolverines, Al Gore, and some Beltway-Manhattan media elites share a twitchy response to various real inconvenient truths.

Illinois has again confirmed what has not been in doubt since Florida. Romney’s broad and big win, like his broad and big win in Puerto Rico on Sunday, added to his enormous lead in delegates and to the already prohibitive odds of his nomination. It is tiresome to say it again and again, but unless a meteor hits the campaign bus, it is Obama vs. Romney in the fall, a race the former Massachusetts governor can win — which is why the president’s pals in the MSM would rather keep the pollsters away from the dozen battleground states as long as possible.

— Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show.

 

QUIN HILLYER

Rick Santorum’s campaign had a very, very strange seven days. If Santorum wants to win the nomination, he can’t afford a single other odd, off week. 

Mitt Romney, for his part, is consolidating his voting support, even among tea partiers. But he’s still not doing it by offering anything positive; he’s winning by knocking down the other guy while urging people to coalesce merely for the sake of coalescing. Even John McCain and Bob Dole offered more compelling messages and personalities.

Back to Santorum: He can no longer afford just to keep plugging along. He needs a game-changing event or argument. His inability to expand his appeal into suburbia is a serious problem for him. He actually is building a theme that can work — the theme of freedom that he did a good job outlining in his speech in Dixon, Ill., on Monday. But my wife, always wise in such things, said it best: He needs to add specifics. The theme and delivery are fine, but he needs to relate it to people’s lives, perhaps with real-life stories or vignettes thrown in. Freedom from eminent-domain abuse, as in the Kelo decision. Freedom from senseless regulations that carry criminal penalties. Freedom, obviously, to decide whether or not to buy health insurance. 

Finally, Santorum must decisively puncture the flawed impression that Mitt Romney would be a strong general-election candidate. It’s a tall order, but he and his campaign team have overcome higher odds than these. If they don’t do it again, and soon, Romney will meander to victory without a shred of real inspiration.

— Quin Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor of The American Spectator.

HENRY OLSEN

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.

 

LARRY J. SABATO

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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