Illinois: The beginning of the end?

March 22. 2012 8:00AM - Last modified: March 22. 2012 8:52AM

Chris Dolan

Mitt Romney won a crucial, yet decisive victory in the Illinois Republican primary on Tuesday evening.

Romney pretty much destroyed Rick Santorum’s hope of winning their first real head-to-head matchup in this heavily populated state.

Romney won 39 of the 54 Republican delegates with Santorum winning only five in the more conservative districts in the downstate region of the state. Romney’s power base was in the northwest suburban areas of Chicago, demonstrating his strength with more moderate and independent-leaning Republicans.

According to exit polls, roughly two-thirds of the Illinois Republican primary electorate revealed they want their preferred nominee (Romney or Santorum) to prevail, no matter how long the process might take. This high level of intensity is tempered by the fact that 32 percent of Illinois primary voters remained undecided as to whom they were going to vote for until a few days before or on the day of the primary election. This figure is much higher than in a number of other state Republican primaries.

While Romney’s win in Illinois could be what helps him pull away from Santorum, he is still confronted with some considerable obstacles. Above all, he has to convince the conservative base within the Republican Party there is nothing to fear from his candidacy. The endorsement by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who can appeal to both conservatives and moderates, was a good start. However, he also must demonstrate to conservative media pundits, talk radio hosts and big cash donors he is the only Republican candidate who can beat President Obama.

For Romney to convince conservatives he is both conservative and electable, he has to force Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich out of the race. Given that Santorum enjoys wide support from social conservatives and is better positioned than Gingrich, he can further deny Romney with wins in Louisiana and Wisconsin.

More important, Romney's inability to build a unified front against Obama reflects the frustrations and difficulties of campaigning for the presidential nomination in the era of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that provides candidates with access to unregulated cash donations. Since political action committees, or PACs, now operate with few restrictions, Santorum and Gingrich have been able to raise just enough money to stay afloat.

The ultimate fear is that Romney’s inability to pull away from Santorum and Gingrich is increasing the talk of a brokered Republican convention in Tampa and raising the speculation of a new GOP candidate entering the race.

Why do you think Romney has not been able to finish off his so-called weak political rivals?

Chris Dolan is associate professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College and the author of “Striking First,” “In War We Trust” and “The Presidency and Economic Policy.”


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