According to Public Policy Polling’s latest survey today, Mitt Romney is now leading Rick Santorum, 45 percent to 30 percent, in Illinois. And the obstacles aren’t easily surmountable for Santorum. Not only is Romney polling ahead with groups he normally tends to do poorly with – rural voters, for example – but Santorum’s support is lagging with groups he needs to win. In this case, Tea Partiers and values voters:
Santorum’s winning the group he tends to do well with- Tea Partiers, Evangelicals, and those describing themselves as ‘very conservative.’ But he’s not winning them by the kinds of wide margins he would need to take an overall victory- he’s up only 8 with Tea Party voters and 10 with Evangelicals, groups he needs to win by more like 25 points with to hope to win in a northern state.
One reason could be Santorum’s perceived lack of expertise on economic issues, which Romney has begun emphasizing on the trail this week:
“I don’t think we’re going to replace an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight,” Romney said yesterday at the Machine Shed Restaurant in Rockford, Illinois, referring to Santorum, 53, and the president. “To beat Barack Obama, it’s going to take someone who understands the economy in his bones, and I do, and I will beat him with that understanding.”
The polling data is a sign that the seemingly-interminable race may finally be winding down soon. If Romney is able to lock up a strong victory, he’ll begin to rebuild the narrative of his inevitability, and the calls for party unity and the end of the infighting of the primary season will start up again in earnest. Of course, Santorum has outperformed polls in the past, so there’s certainly a chance he could do so again tomorrow.
Then again, while a Santorum victory tomorrow would extend the race, how far would it take him toward his ultimate goal of winning the nomination? Barring a game-changing miracle, his chance of becoming the nominee is still slim, as Nate Silver writes:
If Mr. Santorum were a little closer to Mr. Romney (say that he had qualified for the ballot in Virginia and won the state) and the allocation rules in the remaining states were a little more favorable to him (say that Texas was winner-take-all rather than proportional), perhaps the small-ball strategy would be worth pursing.
But he is far enough behind that he instead needs a “game change” — something that fundamentally alters the dynamics of the race and allows him to substantially improve on his benchmarks from previous states. …
Mr. Santorum’s odds of winning his campaign are nowhere near that good; the betting market Intrade, instead, now gives him just a 3 percent chance to win the nomination. His campaign is in more need of a game change than Mr. McCain’s ever was, and has even less to lose from high-risk strategies.
The most obvious game-changer would be if Newt Gingrich agreed to drop out and hand over his delegates to Santorum. Gingrich has been splitting the conservative vote, and if Santorum loses by a significant margin tomorrow night, Gingrich will likely get a good portion of the blame. But PPP found that even with Gingrich out of the race, Santorum would still trail Romney by 11 points, which suggests that Santorum’s problems may be more substantial.