Illinois primary day was a laundry day for Mitt Romney. He washed his shirt in the sink and then took Rick Santorum to the cleaners. The former Massachusetts governor beat his closest rival handily, 47 percent to 35 percent. It was the first no-caveat, everyone-is-watching, takes-place-in-a-location-you've-heard of contest that Romney has dominated since his victory in Florida two months ago.
The Republican nominating contest could take a long time. So it's probably wise not to clutch the dashboard every time there's a bend in the road. Still, there was something different about Romney's win in Illinois. On recent primary days, he has been able to claim he won the most delegates, but Santorum has emerged from those nights with the energy and excitement. Tonight Romney can crow about having the excitement and winning the most delegates in a state where he didn't have a home field advantage like Michigan or a regional connection like New Hampshire. Even when he has won, Romney has had to say unsatisfying things like "a win is a win." After Illinois, he can just smile. Everyone gets it.
The Republican race will continue, but the conversation may change. Can Romney turn the victory into the last piece of data necessary to get the party to finally rally around him as the eventual nominee? Romney will argue that he is "bringing the party together," a claim that rests on whether enough people believe that he is acceptable to conservatives. He got some evidence in Illinois to help him make his case. Romney won his usual constituencies—moderates, the wealthy, and the well-educated. But he also improved his performance among the 64 percent who identify themselves as "conservatives." Romney won 47 percent of that group to Santorum’s 39 percent. He also won 47 percent of the vote from those who support the Tea Party to Santorum’s 36 percent.
Romney improved his standing in other areas, too. When voters were asked who best understands the concerns of regular Americans, he won that group with 36 percent. He dominated in the areas he does best in, scoring high among voters who are most concerned about beating Barack Obama and who say the economy is their primary concern.
Will it be enough? Perhaps the win was decisive enough to get Republicans to fall in line, but the exit polls showed that Romney still has work to do. Forty-four percent of those who voted for him said they still had doubts. There are no party elders to finally call everyone in to dinner from their rumble in the back yard. But if Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, or Haley Barbour put their arm around Romney, it would generate some coverage in conservative circles and perhaps that would translate to even more lopsided wins in future states.
The pressure is on the also-rans. At some point, argues one Romney adviser, Santorum and Gingrich have to worry about their future viability as Republicans. They don't want to become branded as spoilers. But the Republican Party has cracks in it and a loud minority wants leaders who never surrender, thumb their nose at the establishment, and battle for principle. If you want to be the favorite after-dinner speaker for that crowd, there's no reason not to take the fight to Tampa.