Illinois Will Set Santorum’s Course for Weeks to Come
“You do your job, and this is the pledge, if we're able to come out of Illinois with a huge or surprise win, I guarantee you, I guarantee you that we will win this nomination."
-- Rick Santorum campaigning in Effingham, Ill. on Saturday.
If Rick Santorum doesn’t pull off an upset in today’s Illinois primary, he and his campaign will soon enough have to abandon the notion of an outright victory in the Republican nominating process.
While Santorum is right that an Illinois victory could propel him to the nomination, a defeat would mean the start of an unhappier phase in his presidential quest. It would require Santorum to embrace the notion that the highest priority for Republicans should be blocking their frontrunner in favor of a contested convention in August.
Santorum has already been ratcheting up the rhetoric in the GOP contest, leaving aside the stock answer from all of the Republican contenders for 10 months – “any of my opponents would be better than Barack Obama” – to openly wonder whether Mitt Romney would be any improvement.
“We should probably just stick with Barack Obama because he's done just about as good a job as Mitt Romney does in job creation,” Santorum told MSNBC on Monday when asked about Romney’s charge that the former Pennsylvania congressman and senator is a “lightweight” on the economy.
Santorum has now won four primary elections – Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee – and caucuses or straw polls in six other states. Romney has won 20 contests and is almost halfway to the number of delegates he needs to clinch the nomination outright.
While third-place New Gingrich has embraced the idea that he can’t win the nomination but can prevent Romney’s victory, Santorum has kept alive the idea that he could yet win. It would require him to win almost 70 percent of the remaining delegates, a tall order for a candidate who has so far won about a quarter of those available. But on paper, it’s still possible.
Romney has struggled in some places where he should have cruised to victory, especially Michigan, but has mostly exceeded expectations for a moderate, Mormon northerner running in a party dominated by Southern, Protestant conservatives. Romney has won all of the contests he had to (New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, etc.) and run stronger in bright red states than expected.
If Santorum is serious about an outright victory, he needs to beat Romney somewhere that Romney is expected to win, like Illinois. With the process nearly halfway over and Romney sitting on twice as many delegates, Santorum is running out of time to unhorse the frontrunner. Illinois may be his last, best chance to change the trajectory of the race.
If Santorum loses in Illinois, he will have to keep traveling down the rhetorical path that Gingrich has already blazed: That Romney is so bad the risk of crippling the party’s frontrunner before a contest with a well-funded incumbent is worthwhile.
If Santorum’s supporters are called not to victory but ensuring a frontrunner’s defeat, many will stay with their man, but the rest will begin to melt away.
Despite polls showing Romney picking up speed heading into the Illinois vote, Santorum still has a path to victory on the Land of Lincoln. With Romney expected to overwhelm Santorum among the hundreds of thousands of moderate suburbanites in metropolitan Chicago, Santorum must unite the rest of the state behind him and win by large enough margins to offset Romney’s advantage in Chicagoland.
If Santorum does that and is aided by exurban and socially conservative Republican voters in the counties Romney is expected to carry, the former senator could beat Romney and seize one of his last chances to go for outright victory. While Santorum, owing to ballot troubles, is unlikely to win the delegate battle in Illinois, a popular-vote victory would shatter Romney’s growing argument of inevitability.
The stakes are high, because if he fails, Santorum will face the unpleasant task of explaining to Republicans why it is essential that no one win their party’s nomination before a convention-floor showdown still five months away.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the path to victory in Illinois:
Illinois Republican Primary
-- 69 delegates from the state (6th largest in GOP)
-- 54 are awarded today – either two, three or four from each from the state’s 14 congressional districts, with direct election of pledged delegates. The delegate’s name will appear alongside presidential candidate’s.
-- Direct presidential preference also on the ballot, but results have no bearing on delegate division
-- 12 more unbound delegates will be selected at state party convention on June 9.
-- Three statewide party officials (chairman and national committeeman and committeewoman) are automatic, unbound delegates
-- Open primary
-- Presidential, state and local primary races
-- 552,155 votes cast in 2008 (McCain 48%, Romney 29%, Huckabee 16%, Paul 5%)
-- Polls close 8 pm EDT
(Santorum is not qualified in four districts because he didn’t submit signatures, so he’s only in the running for 44 of the 54 delegates awarded today. Three of the districts are in Chicago – the 4th, 5th and 7th – urban spots where Santorum is expected to fare poorly anyway. More painful is the 13th, from Champaign to Alton across the central part of the state. That should be good Santorum turf and is a wasted chance for three delegates.)
Five Regions of Illinois
Chicagoland – Romney Rolls
The 10 Illinois counties in metropolitan Chicago is are home to 68 percent of the state’s 12.9 million residents. In the 2008 GOP primary, these counties represented 56 percent of the statewide vote.
How big is Chicago’s political footprint? Only 22 percent of Cook County voted for John McCain in the 2008 general election, but that was still good for almost 500,000 votes. Suburban townships inside Cook County such as Barrington, Lemont and Wheeling have lots of Republican votes and local reports indicate a huge uptick in interest and early voting.
More important, though, are the suburbs, home to the largest share of the state’s Republican voters.
Travel west from Chicago on Interstate 88 out into Naperville, Wheaton, Downers Grove and you feel like you’re in a John Hughes movie. DuPage county is upper-middle-class America at its finest.
DuPage County and Lake County to the north of Chicago are the keys to Mitt Romney’s success in Illinois. While these counties usually go Republican, their color of red is tinged with purple and Santorum’s hard sell on social issues is a turnoff to these upscale voters.
Will and Kankakee
While Rick Santorum knows he’s going to lose in metro Chicago, his success in the state overall depends on holding down Romney’s margin of victory in the region.
While Santorum may see support in the less-upscale counties on the north side of town like Kane, home to the office parks and malls of Aurora, and the exurban portions of DeKalb and McHenry counties, his best bet is on the south side.
Will County, home to Joliet, is one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, with an influx of immigrants and families fleeing the high costs of the city’s western and northern suburbs.
This formerly industrial home to large ethnic populations and lots of Catholic voters could help Santorum offset the Romney advantage in the rest of the region. If you see Santorum strength here and in Kankakee to the south, the Romney campaign could be in for a very unhappy night.
Quad Cities/Rock River Valley
The northwest corner of Illinois is a traditionally Republican part of the state and home to some serious conservatives. With lots of voters in the Quad Cities, this region is the biggest battleground in the Illinois Race.
When Rick Santorum visited Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon he wasn’t just laying claim to the Republican hero’s mantle, he was courting voters in this crucial part of the state.
Moline and the rest of the Quad Cities region was Mitt Romney’s strongest spot during the 2008 primary. If he carries this region again, he will deny Rick Santorum an Illinois victory. But remember that in 2008, Romney was running as a conservative alternative to frontrunner John McCain.
Whether there voters are still in the mood to upend a frontrunner or content to stick with Romney will be a decisive factor in today’s contest.
The candidates have paid special attention to the city of Rockford on Illinois’ northern border, halfway between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Winnebago County is a big trove of Republican votes and looks to be up for grabs.
Also important to consider here is Santorum’s fate in next-door Wisconsin next week. The Badger State is shaping up to be the next big GOP fight and how the candidates run in Winnebago County will be a leading indicator.
Illinois politics follows a simple geographic formula: the farther south, the more conservative. The heart of the state, cities like Peoria, Springfield and Decatur, are certainly more conservative than their neighbors to the north, but aren’t as bright red as their neighbors to the south.
While Mitt Romney is unlikely to win here, his task is to win enough moderates in cities to offset what should be a Rick Santorum romp in the countryside.
They’ve been asking it for a century: Will it play in Peoria? Today the question applies to Santorum. Peoria County, home to Caterpillar, and neighboring Tazewell and McLean counties are home to lots of big manufacturing and agribusiness operations. The soybean is sacred here.
If Santorum is racking up wide margins in metro Peoria, it’s a strong sign that he’s going to have a big night downstate. If he’s just barely winning, it won’t be enough.
The state capital in Springfield is home to lots of Republicans and the cluster of farm communities and sprawl around it are a great place for Santorum to run up his lead downstate. But Springfield also is home to a lot of the upscale voters with whom Romney has had his success so far in the process.
Like most capital counties, Sangamon makes a great primary election bellwether.
Mississippi South/Metro St. Louis
Democrats have always been able to count on the industrial cities across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. But as St. Louis continues to grow and union-label manufacturing continues to shrink, the region has become more of a political battleground.
This should be Rick Santorum’s very best region in the state – exurbanites, blue-collar social conservatives, lots of Catholics and a large number of coal miners.
The city of Alton and its environs have gone from blue to red in recent decades. While neighboring St. Clair County (East St. Louis, Belleville) is still solidly Democratic, Madison has become, like most far-flung suburbs, good turf for Republicans.
The southwest side of Illinois is coal country. Big surface mines produce a huge amount of America’s energy. Marion in Williamson County and Carbondale in neighboring Jackson County were once Democratic bastions but as the blue team has hardened its stance against coal, voters here have become very Republican.
Wabash River Valley
The southeast quarter of Illinois was the first part of the state settled by Europeans, mostly Scots Irish out of Kentucky and Tennessee. The state grew south to north.
While these voters are very conservative, like most denizens of the Hillbilly Firewall, there is danger here for Rick Santorum and its name is Newt Gingrich. In towns like Mattoon and Charleston, Santorum needs to run roughshod over third-place Gingrich or he will lose his chance to upend frontrunner Mitt Romney.
The most Republican County in the state, Effingham is the base of the base of the Illinois GOP. Watch the returns closely here. If Gingrich is doing any better than 10 percent, it will suggest that Santorum hasn’t sealed the deal in the south.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he serves as the host of "Power Play" on FoxNews.com and makes daily appearances on the network including "America Live with Megyn Kelly," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." Most recently, Stirewalt provided expert political analysis during the 2012 presidential election.