Politics

03.20.12

Mitt Romney Romps, Beating Rick Santorum in the Illinois Primary

Santorum misses a chance to stop the frontrunner in a big-state showdown. Howard Kurtz on why Mitt won—and what it means for the GOP race.

For once, Mitt Romney didn’t win ugly.

In the latest in a series of showdowns with Rick Santorum, Romney easily won the Illinois primary on Tuesday, padding his delegate lead and quieting, at least for the moment, a wave of noisy doubts about his candidacy. With nearly all the vote counted, Romney was taking 47 percent of the vote to Santorum’s 35 percent.

Of course, the former Massachusetts governor badly outspent Santorum in the big-state contest, which played to his organizational strengths; the underfunded Santorum didn’t even file a full delegate slate. And Santorum hurt himself with a series of verbal stumbles, including one in which he declared that he didn’t care about the unemployment rate—allowing Romney to insist that he, of course, cares very much.

Illinois also represented a new low for Newt Gingrich, was finishing last, behind Ron Paul, with just 8 percent of the vote. He has increasingly been marginalized by the media and has more debt than cash on hand.

In his speech, Romney tried out a new theme for a slowly recovering economy, that President Obama doesn’t realize “the American economy is fueled by freedom.” He rattled off disconnected examples of federal regulators purportedly hindering entrepreneurs, from oil drilling and coal mining to telling farmers “what their kinds can do on the farm.” (He did not explain.) The fine print doesn’t always hold up—the administration has tripled the number of operating oil rigs—but it gave Romney a rhetorical lift he is usually lacking.

Romney finished with a litany of “I see an America” lines that, for him, was a mighty flourish. “I see an America where poverty is defeated by opportunity, not enabled by a government check.”

He said Obama’s job-killing bureaucrats are “crushing the dream and the dreamers” and that “our economic freedom will be on the ballot”—an obvious attempt by Romney to connect his Mr. Fixit talk to a loftier goal that resonates with conservatives.

Santorum practically accused Romney of plagiarism in the speech that followed, standing in front of a banner emblazoned with a single word: freedom. He said sarcastically he was “pleased” that Romney was “adopting” that message. Indeed, Santorum hit some of the same notes, although in less scripted fashion (“a government that’s trying to dictate how we live our lives…trample our freedom”). But he also took a series of swipes at his rival, saying Romneycare and Obamacare are “indistinguishable,” and finished with an emotional appeal to “saddle up” like Ronald Reagan and carry the “torch of freedom.”

Video screenshot

Mitt Romney Goes After the President in His Victory Speech

It might be most accurate to say at this point that Romney wins by not losing. That is, while he generates limited enthusiasm for his candidacy, he has succeeded, through negative tactics, in taking down a series of surging challengers: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich and, depending on the week, Santorum.

While it’s easy to scoff at such an approach, campaigns are ultimately about winning, and Romney is determined to be the Last Man Standing.

About a third of those in exit polls said he understands the problems of average Americans—not a great number, to be sure, but slightly better than Santorum. Romney’s calling card, once again, was electability. Nearly 40 percent said the most important factor in their decision was the ability to beat President Obama.

It might be most accurate to say at this point that Romney wins by not losing.

Romney did best with voters who are optimistic about the economy. A CNN exit survey found that 20 percent of those questioned believe the economy is getting better, and more than half of them went for Romney.

Thirty-four percent said the economy has stayed about the same, and a whopping 46 percent said it’s getting worse.

Romney even edged the Catholic candidate among Catholics who attend church once a week, beating Santorum 44 to 42 percent, despite the former senator’s heavy emphasis on religious issues. Some of those churchgoers are evidently less conservative than Santorum, who has heavily emphasized social issues.

The Illinois contest failed to generate much enthusiasm, even in the state, where local political leaders admitted that interest was low. In fact, ex-governor Rod Blagojevich heading off to prison was a much bigger story.

This is in part because the race wasn’t close, in part because the campaign has dragged on, and in part because Romney talks as much about the soporific subject of delegate math as themes that might energize voters.

One reason that Romney gets only a modest lift from these victories is that he is not battling the world’s most stellar field. If he wins, some people say, big deal, he beat a guy who got trounced in his last reelection bid by 18 points. And if he loses to that same guy, it’s even worse.

In one sense, Romney is trapped in the same stop-start cycle that has plagued him throughout the campaign—such as when his Ohio triumph was followed last week by losses in Alabama and Mississippi. Romney will have three days to enjoy his Illinois victory before Saturday’s primary in Louisiana, where Santorum is favored to win.