Illinois primary a must win for Santorum, it is time to do or die

Illinois, with 54 delegates up for grabs tonight, is must win for Santorum. Without a big win, it may be time for him to go home and let Romney heal a fractured GOP.

NATCHITOCHES, La., March 20, 2012—Newt Gingrich had to win Mississippi and Alabama in order to remain a viable candidate. Those states weren’t essential because of their delegate counts or their importance to the national election, but because Gingrich had won nothing outside the South and staked everything on a southern strategy.

He lost. He remains in the campaign, but he’s a ghost, a bitter aftertaste, and a thorn in Rick Santorum’s side.

Santorum now faces his own “must win” primary, Illinois. He’s won more states than Gingrich, but his strength so far has been in the Midwest and South, and in neither region has he been able to dominate. Romney has picked up a share of delegates everywhere, managing in some cases to deny Santorum more than a tiny delegate advantage when Santorum has beat him in the popular vote. Even where Santorum wins, he doesn’t manage to close Romney’s lead.

If Santorum can’t win Illinois, he’ll find it very difficult to convince voters that he’s a viable alternative to Romney. It’s one of the biggest states in the region, and if it isn’t as dominated by evangelicals as Mississippi, they still account for almost half the GOP population. It isn’t a state that would naturally go to Santorum, but it is a state he should be able to contest.

As in Ohio and Michigan, the polls were moving his way until just a few days ago. And just as in Ohio and Michigan, that movement was reversed. Romney has a vastly superior organization on the ground, and he’s outspent Santorum on advertising seven-to-one. Santorum is prone to mock that kind of spending, but he desperately wishes that he could spend as much. It isn’t just that Romney spends more than Santorum, but that he can so easily afford to do so.

Santorum’s desultory presence in Illinois can easily cost him the primary. His time in Puerto Rico was utterly wasted (had his campaign advisors known how he would perform there, they would have dispatched him directly to Illinois), and he’s spent neither the time nor the money that he needs to in Illinois to get his supporters to the polls. They may be more passionate than Romney’s supporters, but not enough that the campaign doesn’t have to work to get them to the polls.

Up for grabs in Illinois are 54 of its 69 delegates. Three delegates are from the RNC, 12 are at large, and 54 are chosen by Congressional district. Only those 54 will be contested tonight, and unless the polls are badly off, most will be bound to Mitt Romney. 

The most Santorum can win is 44. Santorum’s inept campaign organization has again cost him delegates before the votes are even cast. It didn’t file slates in four districts with ten delegates, including the 13th Congressional District, which could easily have been his. He’s only strong in five other downstate districts with large evangelical populations and 17 total delegates, and his strength there could be negated by a strong Romney turnout. 

The advantage is Romney’s. Turnout favors organization and money. It shouldn’t be a cakewalk, but it’s conceivable that Romney can land a knock-out punch. If he wins big across the state, Santorum could even lose the downstate districts. If that happens, it will be a terrible blow to his campaign.

If Santorum loses Illinois decisively, he’ll remain in the campaign, but his chances of denying Romney a first-ballot nomination will be vastly reduced. If Gingrich does badly enough, he might drop out of the race. If he does, it won’t do much good for Santorum. Santorum needed the Gingrich voters before the campaign moved to the South. As the campaign moves on past Louisiana, it will be in states that are much stronger for Romney. When it gets there, it won’t matter much what Gingrich does. 

Of course, there’s a chance that Santorum could prevail in Illinois. If that happens, the state won’t be pivotal in the nomination race. It’s pivotal only if it goes strongly to Romney. Otherwise, it’s just one more in a long and tedious series of primaries and caucuses.

Close campaigns are often more interesting, but in this case, the less close it is, the more interesting it will be.

Join Communities writers Jim Picht, Gayle Falkenthal, Henry D’Andrea and others for a live chat of the Illinois primary, starting tonight at 7:30 CST (8:30 Eastern). Share your interpretation of the results or just enjoy some political conversation. We look forward to hearing from you.

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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