Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Illinois primary Tuesday, as expected, and his margin of victory was in line with what the polls had predicted. But in winning Illinois he staked one of his strongest claims yet on the Republican presidential nomination.
The best case for Romney isn’t only his business experience; it’s his electability. In a field that at one point included Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and the disastrous Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he stood out as the grown-up in the room, the only one who was remotely presidential.
That could make him attractive to independent voters in swing states who determine this election.
Romney has performed well in those states, especially among more affluent voters and women. He has trailed among evangelical Christians and white working class voters, especially in the South. So, he has underperformed in states that are almost guaranteed to go Republican—Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia—and done well in states and among demographic groups he’ll need to win the general election.
Illinois is a solidly blue state which will go for President Obama in November. But Ohio is a classic swing state, and Michigan is not as deep blue as Illinois is. He won both of those by narrow margins. He also won Florida decisively.
Romney won easily in the suburbs around Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit; in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach, and in the I4 Corridor from Orlando to Tampa—a critical swing district in one of the most important swing states of all.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum has increasingly marginalized himself as the campaign drags on. With his extreme stands on social issues, he has alienated many voters in the suburbs who don’t think President Obama has provided the necessary leadership but who live in the 21st Century, not the 18th.
Santorum’s recent remark that the unemployment rate wasn’t the most important issue (so what is—birth control?) has exposed him as primarily a Christian Crusader out to “fix” the morality of America in ways far more intrusive than anything he criticizes the president for doing. Primary voters in Illinois rejected that view.
Now the primary calendar moves decisively in Romney’s favor. Except for Louisiana on Saturday, Romney should do well in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia in two weeks. Then, on April 24th, the Northeast speaks: Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania.
That’s five full weeks when Romney’s superior money and organization can grind away on friendly turf. Santorum spoke Tuesday from his home state of Pennsylvania, where he may throw all of his limited resources. He must win there if he wants to continue in the race.
The radicalized Republican base, which turns out heavily in the primaries, has pushed Romney very far to the right, so he’s had to repudiate many things in his moderate record that would appeal to independents in the general election. He’ll have to deal with that, but for now he’s back on the road to the nomination.