Illinois Tailor-Made for Romney's Moderate Conservatism

Nate Silver is calling the GOP primary contest on March 20 a "Battle of Chicago Versus Illinois." This is how it has been in the Land of Lincoln for generations, as the state's largest city, a bastion of liberalism and monolithic Democratic politics, has been constantly at odds with its more rural, traditional, and conservative Republican core.

Chicago has dominated this relationship largely because 2/3 of the state's inhabitants live in the city proper, or one of its "collar counties." And it is here that Mitt Romney's fate in Illinois will be decided. Rick Santorum will do very well downstate, where voters are more religious and more conservative. Romney's chances will depend on turning out the more upscale, better educated, and more secular voters found in Chicago's vast suburban and ex-urban environs.

Romney has potentially more voters. Santorum has an edge in the enthusiasm of his followers. Can Romney overcome the demonstrated strong commitment to Santorum and muster the turnout necessary to beat his insurgent campaign?

A Public Policy Polling survey shows Romney with a 45-30 lead, while an ARG poll released on Monday also gives Romney a double-digit advantage. And a Rasmussen survey taken a few days earlier gave Romney a 9-point lead. But as Nate Silver points out, Santorum has been overperforming his poll numbers recently:

Rick Santorum did something unusual on Tuesday: he won a state, Mississippi, in which no poll had shown him with a lead.

This was not the first time. He did the same thing in Iowa, although the case could have been made that the polls there were understating his momentum.

Mr. Santorum had also never led a survey of Colorado voters, although there was just one poll there. And he trailed either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich in the last seven polls of Alabama, although he did hold a lead in one survey of the state earlier on.

Silver's model for Mississippi gave Santorum only a 2% chance of winning that race. But it may be asking a lot for the candidate to overcome Romney in a state that is tailor-made for his brand of Republicanism. Illinois' history is replete with GOP moderates winning statewide races, including recent governors Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, and George Ryan, as well as a tradition of Senate moderates like Everett Dirksen and Charles Percy.

But the party has changed over the last 20 years and moderates have a far more difficult time in state-wide primaries. Moderate State Senator Kirk Dillard lost to social conservative Bill Brady in the GOP contest for governor in 2010. Brady narrowly lost to the politically damaged Democrat Pat Quinn, who served as impeached Governor Rod Blagojevich's lieutenant governor. But current GOP Senator Mark Kirk (rehabbing from a serious stroke) seems to have bridged the gap between the social right and more secular-oriented conservatives with a successful 2010 campaign that stressed economic issues and his leadership qualities.