Is Romney Finally Winning That Key Demographic? His Own Party.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 21 2012 12:54 AM

Romney Cleans Up

In Illinois, Mitt won the way a front-runner should. He might get the hang of this after all.

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Unless, of course, you start to look ridiculous. Newt Gingrich's theory is that he'll pull out a victory in a big convention fight in Tampa. But he has to actually win a contest in some place other than South Carolina and Georgia. Instead, he has launched a quixotic tour that includes zoos and fine-dining establishments, arguing that once he gets to Tampa he'll be able to convince delegates to pick him. He's a flawed candidate. That's why he's not winning. His flaws aren't going to suddenly evaporate, no matter how good a show he puts on for delegates. Gingrich has such a devastating and derisive wit it's a shame that we can't hear Gingrich on Gingrich's strategy. 

If Romney was able to expand his pool of voters in Illinois, Santorum was not. He won among those who consider themselves "very conservative" and those who "strongly support" the Tea Party. He owns the far-right wing of the party but showed no ability to grow out from that base. That may be due to the fact that Romney once again buried Santorum under a mountain of negative ads. Team Romney outspent Santorum 18-1. At $3 million in combined spending between Romney and his Super PAC, that's $7.50 for every Romney vote.

Santorum won among the 43 percent who identified themselves as evangelicals, with 46 percent to Romney's 39 percent. Still, that was one of Romney’s best performances with that group. We also learned something else about Santorum's support among religious voters. For the first time, the exit polls asked people how often they attend church. Santorum won among those who attend services more than once a week, but Romney won all other categories—those who attend weekly, a few times a month, a few times a year, and never. Santorum's base isn’t so much religious as devoted to their faith. That was also true of Catholics. Santorum wins among those who attend mass more than once a week. Romney wins the cafeteria Catholics and all the rest. Again, Santorum has locked up the most intense part of the party but nothing else.

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The exit polls also gave some insight into whether Gingrich's departure would help or hurt the remaining candidates. It's a complicated question that relies on Gingrich being more than a candidate in name only, which was pretty much his role in Illinois, where he finished fourth. In the limited future states where he might be a factor, like Texas, North Carolina, or Arkansas, a strong showing could draw some at-large delegates from Romney, slightly slowing his march to 1,144 delegates. On the other hand, if he performs well in those states, he could take votes from Santorum and rob him of delegates and a win. The latter scenario rests on the theory that Gingrich takes a larger share of voters from Santorum. That was only slightly true in Illinois. When voters were asked who they would favor in a Santorum and Romney matchup, Gingrich voters made up 10 percent of Santorum's share and 8 percent of Romney's share. 

The landscape starts to look pretty good for Romney in the weeks ahead. Santorum will probably do well in Louisiana on Saturday, but then a slew of northeastern primaries look like almost-certain Romney wins: Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. Three of those states are winner-take-all states, which means Romney will take all the delegates on the table. Santorum will win Pennsylvania, but his struggling campaign needs more than a home-state win. And the Pennsylvania primary will not be all gravy, as it will offer the Romney campaign a chance to remind people how badly Santorum lost that state in his last Senate election. 

Mitt Romney won in Illinois the way front-runners are supposed to win. Still, if his opponents don't get out of the race, it could be two more months of slow, steady victories before he actually crosses the finish line with 1,144 delegates. He should buy a few more shirts.