Illinois primary: For Mitt Romney, delegates less important than 'winning'

The Illinois primary Tuesday is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to extend his delegate lead on Rick Santorum. But a big win in the popular vote might be more important. 

Steven Senne/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Chicago Monday in advance of the Illinois primary Tuesday.

In the elusive search for momentum in the Republican presidential race, Illinois is emerging as an important prize.

Not only are 54 delegates at play in the state's primary Tuesday, but perhaps more important, the popular vote could go some way toward grooming public perception heading into the next round of primaries.

So far, Mitt Romney has eked his way through the Midwest, losing to Rick Santorum in Iowa and barely edging him in Michigan and Ohio, though the rules of awarding delegates meant his victory in Ohio was wider than the popular vote. 

Now, Mr. Romney has a chance to win a big state more emphatically, casting himself as the inevitable nominee.

“Romney is desperate to make people who are on the fence conclude that there’s just no way he can’t get the nomination, and he’s the only game in town to beat Obama,” says Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

That's why candidates aren't just focused on the mechanical collection of district delegates in Illinois, which is not winner-take-all. They want to get more votes statewide. 

Both candidates have campaigned in Illinois since Friday, with Romney focused mostly on Chicago’s northwest suburbs, and even a stop Monday in President Obama’s backyard at the University of Chicago.

Polls show Romney fares much better in the suburban collar counties of Chicago, however that hasn’t stopped Mr. Santorum from campaigning there between stops in rural central and downstate Illinois, where he fares better. In fact, Santorum can make a legitimate claim to be a Chicago area local – he is a graduate of Carmel Catholic High School in suburban Lake County.

Bob Cook, Lake County’s Republican central chairman, says it’s unusual for Illinois to be so prominent during primary season. But the down economy, combined with the drawn-out primary calendar, has changed the calculus. 

“There are a lot of very frustrated voters,” Mr. Cook says. “Probably when both [Romney and Santorum] started this journey, they thought they weren’t going to spend money here, but I think things have changed.”

The total Illinois delegate count is 69, but according to state election rules, 15 will be determined at the Illinois Republican Party’s convention in June.

Even in a best-case scenario, Santorum can win only 44 of the remaining 54 delegates Tuesday because he failed to find delegates in four of the state’s 18 districts. He blamed the “byzantine rules” of several states.

“For an organization that was purely volunteer as we were in Illinois, Ohio, and Virginia … it’s amazing that we’re on the ballots we are, given how difficult these rule are from state to state,” he said Monday on MSNBC.

The amount of media spending is similar to Michigan and Ohio. As in those states, Romney is spending nearly five times as much as Santorum in Illinois. The discrepancy is even greater for spending by super PACs here. A super PAC supporting Romney has spent $2.6 million; the super PAC supporting Santorum has spent $310,000, according to ABC News.

The heavy spending in favor of Romney is likely to assure he’ll win Illinois, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but it may make voters in forthcoming primaries view him negatively.

“He’ll grind it out in negative ad spending, but it’s not exactly an uplifting way to win,” Professor Sabato says.

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