Today’s Illinois primary pits the state’s conservative, Rick Santorum-friendly southern counties against the more moderate, Mitt Romney-esque populace up north—or, as Time put it, “Santorum’s Momentum Meets Romney’s Money in Illinois.” But given that the latest polls in Illinois show Romney with a healthy fifteen point lead over Santorum, is there any real wild card in this race, other than how strong a turnout Santorum will elicit in the south? On Monday, I met up with four political scientists at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and, as the afternoon sun spilled into their offices, they talked about why the outcome in their own state won’t really change anything.
“We just understand that it’s over,” Scott McClurg, the department chair, said of the G.O.P. nominating process. “All Romney needs to do is keep the car in the middle of the road and get home,” agreed Randy Burnside, who specializes in race and politics. What about Santorum’s momentum? “The New York and California primaries are going to come down and just squash him like a bug,” said Charles Leonard, a pollster.
Illinois has sixty-nine delegates at stake (fifty-four of which are up for direct election), but the maximum number Santorum could win is forty-four because of filing mistakes. According to a poll that Leonard helped conduct at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Santorum enjoys an eight point lead over Romney in the eighteen southernmost counties. Though it is about a ninth as populous as the north (the vast majority of Illinois Republicans voters live in Chicago and its wealthy suburbs), southern Illinois can be just as conservative as the Deep South, which came out in surprising force for Santorum last week in Mississippi and Alabama. “If you ask people here what they really care about,” McClurg said, “it’s guns, it’s abortion…”
“And then it’s guns again,” Burnside interjected.
While Romney was giving an economic policy speech at the University of Chicago (Obama’s old arena), Santorum tried to milk the conservative vote at a campaign rally in Dixon (the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan). He focussed on family values—saying, not entirely comprehensibly, “If you build a society on individuals, it’s like building a society or a house on a grain of sand. You have to build it on something that’s a bond, something that’s strong, that has cement and glue to hold together fast upon which you can put heavy structures on top. And that is not the individual”—and he talked about strong national defense, mentioning, in disgust, Obama’s “leading from behind.” But the political scientists at S.I.U. were skeptical that strong conservatism and an aversion to Romney would be enough in their part of the state, where voters are more concerned with local politics than they are with the Presidential primary. “If you look at what’s going on around here, people are talking about the congressional primary or the local judicial races, which have been nasty,” McClurg said.
“You wouldn’t even know there is a Presidential primary tomorrow,” Burnside said, citing an absence of Santorum commercials and signs in the area.
“But I can tell you who the state attorney candidates are,” said McClurg.
This fervor over local politics—and indeed it is a fervor: for every one Santorum sign on IL-13, there are at least a dozen for Jason Plummer for Illinois’ Twelfth Congressional District—seems to have drained attention and excitement away from what should be Santorum’s stronghold in the state. “They’ll cast their Santorum vote,” McClurg said, “but I think it’s shallow. There’s just nobody working for him here.”
So, will a weak showing spell the end for Santorum? “No,” shrugged Leonard. “We can’t resist a good food fight.” Romney will increase his delegate count, they all agreed, and continue his slow march to the “coronation” as Burnside called it, but still none of the political scientists would commit to predicting a landslide victory for Romney. “I mean,” Phil Habel, the youngest of the group, said, deflecting the question of who will win today, “I picked Duke to be in the Final Four.” “Yeah,” said Leonard, sounding dejected. “I had Missouri.”