Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. Mitt Romney is poised to take a major prize in the primary fight today — Illinois — after sweeping up a sizable delegate win a couple days ago in Puerto Rico.
But he’s going to have to keep campaigning until June regardless.
Unless something big happens fast, that is. There are signs in the Illinois polls that Rick Santorum is slipping fast, and that’s giving Romney backers new hope that they can wrap this brutal primary up before summer sets in if their momentum can pick up a bit more speed.
The TPM Poll Average shows Romney leading in Illinois by a margin of 44 percent to 30 percent. As has been the case in other big states, Santorum didn’t qualify for a full share of the state’s delegates, anyway (full details on delegate allocation in Illinois here). Those factors add up to what’s likely to be a good night for Romney.
But it’s not all good news. The run-up to Illinois showed how frayed Romney’s well-built campaign organization has become thanks to the primary fight that’s dragged on much longer than anyone expected. Reports over the weekend revealed a Romney campaign in Illinois that was as disorganized as Santorum’s — not a good sign for an operation that will need to make a quick pivot to the general election against President Obama’s incredibly efficient campaign. Romney’s also run a very negative campaign against Santorum, the kind of thing that doesn’t do much for his Republican enthusiasm problem.
But polls show Santorum’s slipping with the base as well. Romney’s struggled mightily with conservatives, but in the Land of Lincoln he’s closing the gap. That’s heartening for Romney and could move the primary up considerably.
“I think Romney is starting to do a little better with some of the groups that he’s tended to struggle with. For instance in Illinois he’s only down 8-10 points with tea partiers and Evangelicals. A month ago he was losing those groups by 25 points,” said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling. “I don’t know that he’s ever going to win those groups, but if he comes closer and closer to neutralizing them it’s going to put him in a position to win most of the remaining contests.”
Indeed, Romney needs to start surprising soon with a game-changing, unexpected win or two before the calendar starts to favor an extremely long primary. His best bet: Wisconsin on April 3, the kind of big, Midwestern state that Santorum’s been doing very well in. “That’s a state where Romney’s been way down in the polls to date, but he’s starting to do better in the Midwest, and that’s the kind of place where if he wins it makes you wonder what states of any size Santorum is going to win in,” Jensen said.
The Romney campaign hopes it can knock Santorum out with a win in Wisconsin and then, as a cherry on top, win in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, a date that includes a number of Romney-friendly Northern states as well (New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island). A strong April in which Romney builds a truly towering delegate lead is critical, because May is filled with the kinds of states that logically favor Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The next big primary day is May 8 and includes West Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina. The rest of the month includes more Southern states like Arkansas and West Virginia before the big showdown in Texas at the end of the month.
While it seems unlikely Santorum would drop out in April regardless of his performance — given the slate of Southern states in May — Jensen said Romney could certainly put him on the ropes.
“I think if Romney sweeps the month of April other than Pennsylvania he’d actually have a pretty decent chance of winning in North Carolina and Indiana, especially if GOP voters start really seeing that this is going to hurt the party and get sick of it,” Jensen said.
But Republicans may not see the light that soon.
“This primary will end when Romney puts away the creeping doubts surrounding his candidacy, and that could begin in earnest with Illinois or could not occur until Tampa,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is unaligned in the contest. “If Romney were to win Pennsylvania, it would grievously wound the case for Santorum to continue as a legitimate threat.”
But Mackowiak said that even if the primary wraps before the end of May, that might not be enough to put Romney on a strong general election path.
“This primary will either make Romney stronger or it will result in a weak nominee, but it is really up to Romney from here on out,” he said. “He must find a way to win over conservatives, drive a consistent, compelling message and appear authentic — three things he has failed to do so far.”
Another GOP strategist suggested that while a Wisconsin win might help speed the process, the calendar and Romney’s performance to date both point to a fight lasting through late spring.
“It’s the primary from hell,” the strategist said. “[Romney] will be the nominee but he is just going to have to fight longer and bloodier than he should — because he’s not that great a candidate.”