Mitt Romney’s resounding win in the Illinois primary Tuesday demonstrated his solidifying hold on the GOP’s upscale managerial wing, and deepened the question of whether rival Rick Santorum can appeal to a broad enough segment of Republican voters to truly challenge the front-runner’s lead for the nomination.
Still, by reaffirming the basic patterns of demographic and ideological support for the two men, the Illinois result is unlikely to significantly dent the expectation that the Republican race could careen all the way to June.
Romney’s Illinois romp, following his narrow victories in Michigan and Ohio, completed a three-state sweep over Santorum in critical Midwestern showdowns. The former Pennsylvania senator’s failure to overtake Romney in any of these hard-fought contests underscored his inability to win states beyond those where evangelical Christians, his most reliable supporters, comprise about half of the vote or more.
Unless Santorum can change that pattern, he can frustrate Romney, and regularly trip him up with embarrassing defeats, but he has little chance of overtaking him for the nomination. Conversely, though, until Romney proves that he can win consistently in states with large numbers of evangelicals, the former Massachusetts governor is unlikely to force Santorum from the field.
Indeed, Romney’s Illinois victory, coming just one week after Santorum’s twin wins in Mississippi and Alabama, demonstrated the durability of the basic fissures in the race. Especially since Santorum emerged as Romney’s principal challenger after Feb. 7, the key blocks in the GOP coalition have divided between the two men in consistent patterns as the race has moved from state to state. The contests have turned less on how those groups have split their votes than on how many of them are present in each state to begin with. Momentum has repeatedly splintered against the rocks of increasingly immutable demographic and ideological preferences.
Just as any momentum Santorum might have enjoyed from his Alabama and Mississippi wins collapsed when he faced an Illinois electorate tilted toward moderate, affluent and non-evangelical voters (who cast 58 percent of all ballots), Romney’s big win might not be enough to overcome Santorum’s intrinsic advantages in heavily evangelical Louisiana, which votes on Saturday.
But Illinois, nonetheless, might mark a turning point for the remaining contests. It showed that the managerial voters who have consistently favored Romney moving even more lopsidedly in his direction than they did in Michigan and Ohio. That might be a one-state blip, but it could also signal that Santorum’s hard-edged message, especially on social issues, is narrowing his appeal as the race proceeds.
Romney, for instance, routed Santorum among Illinois voters with at least a four-year college degree by 52 percent to 31 percent, according to exit polls results posted on CNN.com. That 21-percentage point advantage was nearly triple the eight-point lead Romney amassed among those well-educated voters in Michigan and Ohio, according to exit polls. Romney has now carried college-educated voters in 12 of the 17 states with an exit poll and tied Santorum among them in a 13th; Romney has failed to carry those well-educated voters only in four Southern and border states.
Similarly, Romney crushed Santorum among voters in Illinois earning at least $100,000 annually, running up a 55 percent to 29 percent advantage. That dwarfed the 14-percentage-point lead Romney managed among those affluent voters in Ohio and Michigan. Romney has now carried voters earning six figures in every state with an exit poll except South Carolina and Georgia, where they broke for regional favorite Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
Likewise, Romney outpolled Santorum among Illinois voters who described themselves as moderate or liberal by 47 percent to 27 percent. That was a considerably wider advantage than Romney’s six-percentage-point lead among those voters in Michigan, and wider even than his 14-point lead with them in Ohio. Romney has now carried voters who describe themselves as moderate or liberal in 14 of the 17 states where exit polls have been conducted and tied for the lead in another. Romney also piled up a 23-percentage-point advantage among voters who describe themselves as somewhat conservative; he’s now won those key swing voters in all but four states.
Throughout the race, Romney has consistently performed well among voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians, and they provided him a big edge again in Illinois. Those non-evangelical voters preferred Romney over Santorum by fully 2-to-1, 53 percent to 26 percent. That was a significantly wider margin than Romney’s roughly 15-percentage-point advantage among those voters in both Michigan and Ohio.
Romney has now carried voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians in every state with an exit poll except Gingrich’s home turf of Georgia. Just as important, Santorum has not carried more than 31 percent of non-evangelical voters in any state with an exit poll.
One reason for Santorum’s struggles with non-evangelicals: He continues to underperform with fellow Catholics. After losing them in Michigan and Ohio, he turned in a weaker performance Tuesday than in either earlier state. Santorum attracted just 31 percent of Illinois Catholics, far behind Romney’s 52 percent. Indeed, Romney has outpolled Santorum among Catholics in every state where there has been enough of them for exit polls to measure, except Tennessee (where Santorum led by 1 percentage point.) It was probably a telling signal of how Santorum viewed his prospects with Catholic voters that he spent last Sunday campaigning in three Baptist churches in Louisiana rather than in Catholic parishes in and around Chicago.
Santorum ran no better than even among working-class voters who have generally provided Romney a tougher audience. In the exit poll, the two men ran about step-for-step among voters without a college degree, those earning $50,000 or less and those earning between $50,000 and $100,000.
The two constituencies that held for Santorum in Illinois were those that have most reliably bolstered him since his revived his candidacy with his three-state sweep on Feb. 7. Even amid his shellacking, Santorum still beat Romney among voters who identify as very conservative, with a solid 49 percent to 36 percent margin. He has carried those voters in seven of the nine states with exit polls that he has seriously contested since early February.
Most importantly for Santorum’s future hopes, he retained his hold in Illinois on evangelical Christians, outpolling Romney among them by 47 percent to 37 percent. He has now carried evangelical Christians in every state with an exit poll that he has seriously contested since Feb. 7, except Georgia, where they flocked to Gingrich. Still, Santorum’s evangelical margin in Illinois was well below his advantage with those voters in Ohio (17 points) and Michigan (16 points).
The patterns of support that Illinois reaffirmed Tuesday would leave Romney holding a strong advantage in states, many of them along the coasts, where evangelicals will likely comprise only about a third of the vote or less (and where affluent, better-educated voters will also loom larger), including Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and California.
But Romney’s inability to break Santorum’s hold on evangelicals means the former senator remains the favorite in interior states where those voters will likely cast at least half of the GOP ballots, including Missouri, whose caucuses began Saturday, Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and probably North Carolina and Indiana (where no recent exit polls are available).
Still, if Romney can match his pattern in Illinois -- and win non-evangelicals by a much larger margin than Santorum captures evangelicals -- he might be able to surprise Santorum in states divided fairly closely between the two groups, such as Oregon, Nebraska and maybe North Carolina. For all the focus on Romney’s very real difficulty in capturing the most ardent conservatives, Santorum’s inability to reach beyond them looks like an even greater problem after his resounding defeat in another Midwestern battleground.