Why Mitt Romney Needs to Win Illinois

Today, the land of Lincoln and President Obama’s home state will stand front and center in yet another chapter of this epically long GOP slugfest. A year ago, most pundits, including myself, would have predicted that the Illinois primary would have been just another stop on the Mitt Romney coronation parade but time (and GOP voters) has proven very troublesome for the former Massachusetts governor. But, if Romney proves unable to seal the deal in Illinois, the Republican Party might have to seriously consider a Santorum presidential nomination.

No matter what Romney’s campaign outwardly says, the double losses in Mississippi and Alabama last week kept Santorum very much alive. Had Romney won either of those contests, he would have proven that he could win in the Deep South and with an electorate more conservative and more Evangelical than a mainstream GOP contest. A victory in either state would have silenced those who challenge Romney’s conservative credentials.

Now, the Romney campaign needs to concede that they won’t be able to win those Republicans quite yet. They need to focus on the states with the largest populations to win the nomination–New York, California, Texas (possibly) and yes, Illinois, for a couple key reasons. First, for all of his faults, no one can doubt the size and power of Romney’s campaign organization. Gingrich and Santorum are still struggling putting together their organizations (i.e.– not being able to get on their own home state’s ballot) and a lack of a solid campaign machine will clearly separate Romney from his rivals in states with both large populations and geographic areas. Second, Romney needs to rely on large urban centers to rally to his cause. Romney won Ohio by making sure Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Summit County (Akron), Franklin County (Columbus), and Hamilton County (Cincinnati) turned out for him while virtually ignoring the rural areas of the state. Similarly, he won Michigan by making sure his organizational strength got Detroit voters to the polls. By using this model, he can make sure states like California and New York will vote the Romney ticket.

However, if Romney fails to win the Illinois Primary, it will show that despite all of his institutional and organizational (and financial) strength, Romney’s ability to off balance his urban county numbers against Santorum’s rural support in large states is ineffective. I am not suggesting that Romney will lose (most future markets and polls give him a good chance of winning) on Tuesday, but he can’t take any chances and needs to make sure Republican Cook County Voters (yes, these people do exists) need to get to the polls.

Romney’s lead in the delegates demonstrates that he only needs to match small state victories with Santorum’s small state victories but a lose in a major state could pull Santorum into an even match with Romney.

As I mentioned above, the losses in Dixie last week should be disconcerting for Romney, but there is still time to win these voters and assuredly, even if he is not their first choice to take to the prom, he will be considered better than the November alternative. For now, Romney needs to use his organizational and fiscal strength to close this primary out by winning the remaining large states and a victory on Tuesday in Illinois, the state that produced the first Republican president, will go a long way in Mitt’s quest to sit in the Oval Office.      

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore