Illinois Tailor-Made for Romney's Moderate Conservatism

So while there is a history and tradition of moderate conservatism in Illinois, recent candidates are decidedly farther to the right, reflecting the rise of social conservatives in the party hierarchy. Romney hopes to tap the latent strain of secular conservatism that is most prevalent in the sprawling suburbs of Chicago, while tea party folk and evangelicals, who will make up around 40% of the GOP vote on Tuesday, will break hard for Santorum.

There isn't exactly zero enthusiasm for Romney in the metro area of Chicago. His rallies have been well-attended -- as one would expect from the good advance work being done by his team. But they lack the fire of the true believers who are showing up in droves at Santorum appearances. Romney spoke at the University of Chicago on Monday where the crowd was large, respectful, and, if not enthusiastic, genuinely pleased with the candidate's message:

Freedom is becoming the victim of unbounded government appetite -- and so is economic growth, job growth, and wage growth. As government takes more and more, there is less and less incentive to take risk, to invest, to innovate, and to hire.

Meanwhile, Santorum was in Dixon, Ronald Reagan's hometown, speaking in front of the Gipper's statue to 300 enthusiastic supporters:

"We have someone who's certainly the choice of the establishment Republicans, someone who's turn it was," Santorum told a crowd of about 300. "We see that so often in Republican politics for president. It's almost inevitable whoever's the next in line, that's who the Republicans tend to put forward. And Ronald Reagan said 'no, we don't need the next in line. We need something very different.'"

Romney has been outspending Santorum 5-1 in advertising, most of which have been critical of his rival. One ad released this weekend refers to Santorum as "an economic lightweight." Santorum shot back:

"I heard Governor Romney here called me an economic lightweight because I wasn't a Wall Street financier like he was," Santorum told several hundred supporters at a Rockford, Illinois rally. "Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the president of the United States? Do you think that's the experience that we need? Someone who's going to take and look after as he did his friends on Wall Street and bail them out at the expense of Main Street America."

Romney was planning to bypass Illinois for the most part. Originally scheduled to hit the state on Monday, a Chicago Tribune poll that came out last week showing his lead down to a scant 3 points forced the candidate to reconsider. Romney showed up on Friday in Illinois and has barely stopped for breath since then. On Saturday, he was in and around Cook, Dupage, McHenry, and Lake counties trolling for votes, while on Sunday, he caravanned across the northern tier of the state.

If anything, Santorum has been busier, campaigning on Saturday for half the day in Missouri, and then in traditional downstate Republican enclaves like Peoria, Effingham, Herrin, and Mt. Vernon. On Monday, in addition to his Dixon appearance, Santorum was in Rockford, Moline, and ended the day in East Peoria.

The problem for Santorum is that even if he is able to eke out a victory in the popular vote, it is certain that he will receive fewer delegates than Romney. That's because the rules for delegate apportionment in Illinois are slightly different than many states. Each candidate must run a slate of 3 delegates in each congressional district tied to his candidacy. Because of a lack of a state-wide organization until very recently, Santorum will not field a full delegate slate in several districts, limiting his eligibility to claim only 44 out of the 54 delegates at stake (15 additional delegates will be chosen at the state convention later this summer). A narrow win by Santorum will probably mean that Romney will once again best him in the delegate count.

This is the first meaningful GOP primary in Illinois since the 1976 contest where Ronald Reagan was defeated by President Ford by 20 points. It is very likely that the conservative candidate won't lose by that much this time around. But hopes that Santorum can overcome Romney's apparent lead are probably unrealistic.