It’s almost over. That was the message from Illinois on Tuesday night, where Mitt Romney scored another commanding primary victory, outpacing his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination again and padding a delegate lead that’s beginning to look insurmountable.
With 63% of precincts reporting, Romney led chief rival Rick Santorum 47%-35%. The statewide popular vote is pure pageantry in Illinois—it elects its delegates in its 15 congressional districts—but that didn’t soften Romney’s victory. The AP put 41 delegates in Romney’s column and just 10 in Santorum’s.
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All of his traditional strengths were on display: he did well in big cities and their suburbs, among the affluent, the well-educated and those who care more about beating Obama than elected a “true conservative.” In an election night speech to supporters in Illinois, Romney delivered a version of his latest stump speech, a pure strain of general election stem-winder focused on President Obama –“too many apologies and not enough jobs”–that barely mentioned anything about a Republican race.
The same demographic deficiencies that have dogged Romney from day one remained, too: Voters who identified as “very conservative” backed Santorum 48-33, and Romney lost white Evangelicals by 12 points. Rural voters in southern and northern Illinois supported the former Senator as expected. But the margins were smaller than those Romney racked up in Chicago and the suburban “collar counties,” which account for most of the vote in Illinois, and Santorum’s coalition prove insufficient again in a state where Evangelicals don’t dominate the electorate.
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And there’s evidence that some of the core constituencies that have sustained Santorum to date are beginning to erode: He won among those who make less than $50,000 a year by 5 points, strong Tea Party supporters by only 3 points, and those with no college degree by just 1 point. Romney actually won regular churchgoers and more Republican votes said Romney understood average Americans’ problems.
Two-thirds of voters still said they hope their preferred candidate wins no matter what, a bloc that split evenly 40%-40% between Romeny and Santorum. But for the other third, the third who would prefer the primary just end already, Romney stomped Santorum by 20 points. That’s telling. Plenty of Republicans just want this to be over. They didn’t get their final wish Tuesday night, but they got a good deal closer.