I concur with my colleagues. The GOP presidential race isn’t officially over, but the outcome is (absent an act of God) decided. As many of us thought at the outset of this contest, Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee.
It took longer, and the struggle has been harder, than Romney and his supporters would have liked. But he’s going to win the nomination of a party whose base has been wary of him from the start and while packing some heavy bricks (in the form of RomneyCare) in his rucksack. That is an impressive achievement in its own right.
The exit poll results from Illinois (analyzed here) are interesting. What they show is that Romney has improved his standing by a considerable margin among groups that he’s done well with throughout this primary season. For example, Romney routed Santorum among Catholics (21 percentage points); those with a four-year college degree (also by 21 points); those earning at least $100,000 (by 36 points); those who describe themselves as moderate or liberal (by 20 points); and among voters who describe themselves as somewhat conservative (the margin was 23 points) and non-evangelicals (27 points). Romney also won among Tea Party supporters (by six points) and improved his standing among working class voters and those earning between $50,000-$100,000 a year (he tied Santorum in that category). The former Massachusetts governor also made inroads among evangelical Christians (he lost this group to Santorum by 10 points, a large margin but less than in comparable states). Romney did lose to Santorum by a wide margin (13 points) among those who self-identify as very conservative.
What we saw, then, is that the basic pattern of this campaign played out in Illinois, but Romney did better with almost every demographic group than he did in Ohio and Michigan. The GOP primary race template remains in place, except that Romney is growing much stronger with those groups that are inclined to support him while his opponents are doing a good deal weaker. Newt Gingrich ceased to be much of a factor a while ago, while Rick Santorum has not been able to broaden his appeal. In retrospect, Santorum’s failure to win in Ohio and Michigan did irreparable damage to his candidacy; Illinois will be seen as the state that finally broke him.
As for the state of the race right now, Governor Romney has won right around half the delegates needed to win the nomination (560 out of 1,144). He has to win less than half of the remaining delegates (roughly 45 percent) in order to secure the nomination. He’s won more than 1.3 million more votes than Santorum, his closest challenger. And Romney has won 21 of the 33 contests held so far. The chances of a brokered convention remain small; and the odds that the nomination would go to anyone other than Romney are near zero. That reality will gradually dawn on the supporters of Gingrich and Santorum, and perhaps even on the two candidates themselves.
There’s no question that between now and the general election Governor Romney needs to buttress his standing among evangelicals, rural and non-college educated voters, and those who consider themselves very conservative. He needs their enthusiastic support f he hopes to dislodge President Obama in the Fall. Governor Romney also has some repair work to do with independents; the primary campaign took its toll on him with independents. But those tasks, while not easy, are eminently doable. For now, Mitt Romney, really for the first time, can breathe a sigh of relief. Almost everyone can now see that he will win the nomination of the Republican Party. And he has a better than even chance of becoming America’s 45th president.
There are worse ways to begin the Spring than that.