The most unpredictable Republican primary in decades has turned into a snooze.
So much for those wild swings in the lineup, and so much for staying up late on election night watching the returns come in. Would Mitt Romney pull off an upset in the Deep South? Would he fend off a challenge from Rick Santorum in his native Michigan? Would Newt Gingrich win anything after South Carolina besides his home state? Would Rep. Ron Paul win anything at all?
We now know the answers to all of those questions (no, yes, no, and no), and we have the primaries down to a science. States with more moderate, secular, and wealthier voters fall to Romney, a Mormon and former governor of true-blue Massachusetts. Contests dominated by superconservatives, evangelical Christians, and less-educated workers go to Santorum, a Catholic former senator from Pennsylvania who has emphasized his blue-collar roots and unwavering opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. Romney’s overpowering financial and organizational advantages tend to shore up his standing in the states he’s supposed to win but not in the states he’s expected to lose.
The thrill is gone. And so, Romney is widely anticipated to win what was once viewed as a competitive primary in Wisconsin on Tuesday, in addition to picking up victories in Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Even Santorum seems to have given up on a Tuesday night surprise. As he did on the night of the llinois primary two weeks ago, he plans to await the Wisconsin results in his home state of Pennsylvania, which doesn’t vote until April 24. Meanwhile, Romney will be polishing his victory speech in Milwaukee.
“It’s turning into a war of attrition in which each candidate knows whether they are going to do well or not based on the demographics of the state," said Wisconsin-based conservative strategist Brian Sikma, who is backing Santorum. “The same demographics keep lining up, and there isn’t going to be a big change in that."
Take political ideology. In Wisconsin, the percentage of GOP primary voters who describe themselves as very conservative or conservative is only 56 percent, according to Charles Franklin, a Marquette University pollster and political science professor. That’s a Romney-like electorate, an even-more-moderate group than the voters who helped him win two other Midwestern states, Illinois (64 percent conservative) and Ohio (66 percent conservative).
Compare those numbers with the makeup of the GOP electorate in Mississippi and Alabama, two states where Santorum prevailed. In Mississippi, 71 percent of the voters called themselves conservatives, according to exit polls. In Alabama, the number was 67 percent.
“The regional differences are quite striking," Franklin said.
But the lack of suspense about Tuesday’s results is not solely due to demographics. In recent weeks, a parade of prominent Republicans who had withheld their endorsements have thrown their support to Romney or called for the party to focus on defeating President Obama. As each week passes without a major shakeup in the race, Santorum’s path to the nomination becomes increasingly implausible.
Romney has 568 delegates, according to the Associated Press count. That’s a long way from the 1,144 needed to cinch the nomination but more than twice as many as Santorum has.
Still, Santorum has said he will continue campaigning no matter what happens on Tuesday. “The longer it goes, the better it is for the party," the former senator from Pennsylvania told reporters on Monday while campaigning in Appleton, Wis., insisting the conventional wisdom is wrong. “I would argue even if it ends up in a convention, that’s a positive thing for the Republican Party, that’s a positive thing for activating and energizing our folks heading into this fall election."
In a sign he’s not going down easily, Santorum unleashed a tough new ad on the eve of the election that bashes Romney for backing cap-and-trade policy, the Wall Street bailout, tax increases, and a health care program in Massachusetts that he said offered cheap abortions. The ad’s narrator appears to be talking about Obama, but Romney is the ultimate target.
The Romney campaign dismissed the ad out of hand. “It is sad to see him complete lose his bearings and revert to patently false claims," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul, who called Santorum’s path to the nomination an “illusion.’’
Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report