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.

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.

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