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March 21, 2012 4:51 pm

The Republican Primaries: The State of the Race

avatar by Dmitriy Shapiro

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Mitt Romney getting introduced at Bradley University in Illinois by Congressman Aaron Schock. Photo: Romney campaign.

Mitt Romney’s win on Tuesday night in President Obama’s home state of Illinois, beating his rival, Sen. Rick Santorum, 46.7 to 35 percent, may not have come as a surprise to anyone but me. Somehow, I’ve forgotten that there were any Republicans left in Illinois; or that a victory for any GOP candidate in “The Prairie State,” would have anything but a negative bearing on voter perception of a Republican candidate.

During the primary season, you are forced to deal with contests in states that so thoroughly contrast with your party’s base that any investment by a candidate is a throw away in the general election. Like a Democratic primary in South Carolina or Texas, the Party at large pays little attention to a state it knows will not be contestable in a general election.

Illinois, once an important swing state, has not voted Republican since 1988. No doubt, it would have been far more interesting if yesterday was a Democratic Primary; traditionally, there are more fireworks with the Democrats in the state that gave us the Daley Dynasty, Rahm Emanuel, and Rod Blagojevich.

What happens to a party organization in such states once the parade passes by isn’t pretty. If you’re a state organizer or volunteer, the moment the primary is called for your candidate and the excitement feels like he’s just taken the presidency, will also be the last time you’ll feel human for a long while. You wake up the next day to find that the campaign has left without you – all you got was a “Thank You” and they are no longer returning your calls. So you try to press on, hoping to deliver a state that the candidate’s strategists have totally ruled out of their national victory plan and wouldn’t even spend a dime to send you a new batch of lawn signs. Good thing this is often the first experience young politicos have, otherwise they’ll think politics is softball.

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Shortly after polls closed last night, early results saw Romney with such a wide lead over Santorum that it wasn’t hard to call him the winner shortly after results started coming in. By the end of the night, Santorum was able to narrow the margin by winning the rural and less populated counties, which as usual tend to be more conservative. Like many Midwestern states, Illinois Republicans split between the more affluent suburban moderates, who break heavily for Romney, and the corn-fed farmers that are culturally closer to voters in the South.

The unsurprising results worry many inside Republicans about Mitt Romney’s prospects with the party base. So far, Romney has done better in blue state primaries than in the GOP heartland. If Romney gets the nomination, they fear, it will be a return to the Rockefeller Republican era of GOP politics that they worked so hard to eradicate from the GOP base. In this election cycle, voters care more for ideological purity than political consensus which they justify by pointing out the landslide Tea Party coup in the 2010 Midterm Elections, on which they hope to build on. Romney’s Illinois victory will give more firepower to his detractors who are trying to rally support within the traditionalist wing of the Republican Party. By partisan logic, a nominee without the support of his base is a threat to party ideology and will hinder voter turnout in the general election.

2008 Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who has endorsed Romney, knows the situation very well. He also appealed more to northern moderates in the primaries than traditional conservatives. Upon winning the nomination as a moderate he was forced retroactively to shore up his base in the general contest by making Gov. Sarah Palin his running mate. The disastrous result of this decision is now well documented history. A candidate who wins his party’s nomination without straying from the middle ground, should never begin appealing to his party’s extremists in the general election, where the key is always to moderate enough to capture as many independent voters as possible. Sure, excitement may be lacking, but if McCain had focused his energy into highlighting Obama’s liberalism, rather than taking a defensive stance trying to prove his conservatism. It’s not as if the conservative stalwarts will vote for Obama, and if the choice was made clear, instead of leaving the middle ground free for Obama, the energy would have been acquired also.

This time around, many conservatives want to nominate a dependable conservative so that they did not have to fill in the gaps during the general election. This is the key to Santorum’s popularity, and why the inevitable Romney hasn’t yet clinched the nomination.

One significant statistic provided by the National Press Pool’s exit poll results in Illinois, highlights voters obvious apathy toward a Romney nomination. Among those who voted for Romney, only 72% believed that he was the best candidate to beat Obama. A whole 18% of voters who picked Romney believed Santorum was better suited to beat Obama. In contrast, 93% of Santorum supporters believe that their candidate could win the presidency. Therefore, it seems that many Romney supporters have already resigned themselves to an Obama victory in 2012; a very alarming statistic. Why would someone vote for a candidate who they didn’t absolutely believe could win the White House? Santorum and Gingrich will undoubtedly continue to hammer Romney on his lukewarm support and continue to feed the “Anyone But Romney” groundswell.

There are still enough states in the primary calendar to give Santorum a small chance at capturing the nomination from Romney. Of course this would be easier if it was actually a two-man race, and if Santorum’s early lack of organization had not made it impossible for him to seat the total amount of delegates reserved for some states.

Former speaker Newt Gingrich, despite dwindling funds (this excludes the constant influx of the Adelsons’ contributions to a super pack, which you cannot use to fund his campaign), single digit national support, and calls for him to drop out, is holding steady on his intention to raise hell at the GOP convention. By all reasonable estimates, Gingrich can only hope for close second-place finishes in all the states he is currently investing his resources. This is no longer a campaign to win for Gingrich, but a campaign for revenge — like the guest who was not invited to a party, but comes out of spite to make it awkward for the other guests just because he’s upset at not being invited in the first place. Romney’s precarious position with GOP voters makes him extremely vulnerable if Gingrich does drop out before the convention, since Gingrich voters dislike moderate Republicans even more than Santorum voters.

The Gingrich campaign needs to hope their candidate gets a miraculous bump; otherwise a narrow nomination victory for Mitt Romney, the perceived moderate candidate, would be entirely their fault.

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