Mitt Romney’s big win in the Illinois primary is not a game-changer, mainly because the likely outcome of the game — the race for the Republican presidential nomination — is the same today as it was Tuesday morning: 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 re-set 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.
In the short term, Romney, the beneficiary of so many lucky breaks throughout this cycle, gets another little bonus on Saturday: While he is almost assuredly headed for a loss in the next primary on the schedule — Deep South Louisiana — the contest is being held on Saturday, when probably few will be paying attention. Another bonus: because of Louisiana’s complicated rules, only 20 delegates will be awarded Saturday anyway; so long as Romney gets over 25% — not a sure thing — Santorum will only pick up a few more delegates there than Romney. In other words, Louisiana, even if Romney bombs there, wouldn’t allow Santorum to cut very much into Romney’s big delegate lead.
In a global sense, Romney has dominated this nomination season. In a multi-candidate field, he has taken more than 3.9 million votes in primaries, or just under 40% (39.8%) of all votes cast. Santorum, the next closest candidate, has taken just 26.6% of the primary vote. (Figures are from uselectionatlas.org.) More importantly, based on the Associated Press’ count, Romney has 563 delegates — 300 more than Santorum and also more than Santorum and the rest of his opponents combined.
Beyond Louisiana, there’s not an obvious place in the short term where Santorum can get a meaningful win. He needs to focus his dwindling resources on Wisconsin, but after failing Midwestern tests in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, can he come back in Badgerland on April 3?
Recent history, and demographics, tells us no. The key demographic number in this primary season has been the percentage of white born-again/evangelicals in a state’s electorate. The higher the number, the worse Mitt Romney does — The Washington Post’s Dan Balz has noted that when the white evangelical figure is under 50%, Romney wins, and when it’s higher, he loses. According to exit polls, the percentage of white evangelical voters in Romney’s three Midwestern primary victories has been 47% (Ohio), 42% (Illinois) and 39% (Michigan). In 2008’s primary, Wisconsin’s white evangelical percentage was 34%. Granted, we expect that number will be bigger this year than four years ago — in the three aforementioned Midwestern states, the share of the white evangelical vote in each place grew by an average of six percentage points from 2008 to 2012 — but probably not big enough to carry Santorum over the finish line.
Even in Pennsylvania, which Santorum represented in Congress, Santorum now appears unlikely to be able to win many delegates because his campaign did not do the leg work there to lock up commitments from the delegates who will appear on the ballot. Rank and file voters might support Santorum in the Keystone State, but the party leaders who will be delegates probably won’t. Again, Romney has lucked out thanks to the inadequacies of his opponents’ organizations.
The drama remaining concerns whether Romney can actually win the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination outright before the primary season ends in June. We suspect he will, though it will take him awhile. His opponents, barring an act of divine intervention, cannot finish ahead of him in delegates.
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 Newt Gingrich; they could stay in until June, perhaps winning here and there. Ron Paul, though now mostly off the radar, will probably continue. But Romney can mainly ignore them at this point.