Tomorrow the state of Illinois will have its say in the ongoing GOP primary. The most recent poll, a phone survey of over 500 likely voters showed Mitt Romney leading his two main rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, by 15 percentage points.
Romney continues to win states where both his financial and organizational superiority are simply too effective to give his opponents a legitimate chance to win. We've seen this play out in Florida, Michigan, and Ohio most prominently, but the bottom line is, Romney has this advantage in every state. Romney's biggest problem is not either of the two candidates really, instead it's the way the race is designed.
Republicans made a reactionary mistake following the 2008 primaries, changing a large portion of what were winner-take-all primary contests four years ago and changing them so delegates from those states were awarded proportionally, much like the Democratic Party has been doing for years. If the 2008 rules were still in effect, the general election would have started by now and Mitt Romney would be the GOP nominee.
Rules are rules however, and you shouldn't believe for a second that even a double digit, near-50% of the vote win for Mitt Romney tomorrow night will do anything but recycle the same narrative that has followed the GOP primary since Rick Santorum's early February surge into his current position as the final "Not-Romney" candidate.
Those narratives are so simple that they are hard to deviate from in the slightest. Romney victories are followed by "He was expected to win here, but you can't say enough about his ability to keep coming back from disappointing showings in some of these other states." Santorum victories are viewed more like Romney losses. Santorum won just 4 of 10 states on Super Tuesday, states which he expected to win, but his biggest win on that night was the narrative battle. His "narrow" loss in Ohio made it seem like he'd actually won Ohio despite the fact that he was a big loser in terms of states and more importantly, delegates, on Super Tuesday.
Expect the same things this week, as Romney's win in Illinois will be met with comments like "It was a state he needed to win to keep this inevitability argument going, and should we really be surprised, given the fact that he outspent his opponents in Illinois by a gagillion to 1?" Then expect comments like, "Romney just doesn't have what it takes to swing southern voters into his favor" when he inevitably loses Louisiana on Saturday.
So far, the GOP Primary race has felt like "The Tornado," an "Out-and-Back" style roller coaster at Adventureland theme park in Altoona, Iowa. It's a great wooden roller coaster and since it's out and back it's a fairly long ride as far as roller coasters go, with several ups and downs throughout the entire ride. It was my favorite as a kid, after I'd get off, I'd sprint to the the entrance to get right back on. This GOP primary is starting to feel like I'm once again on The Tornado, but I'm stuck. Instead of slowing to a stop on the platform, it breezes right by every time, and when I think it should be over, a chain lift is bringing me back to the beginning. The novelty has worn off.
Santorum's campaign and the candidate himself seem to enjoy the ride so much they never want to get off, even if it means sending the GOP into a chaotic mess at the convention, performing what will be self-amputation before the general election gets underway. The goal? Deprive Romney of the amount of delegates he needs to claim the majority, 1144.
The media is more than happy to oblige, because it simply has to cover it. Romney's "inevitability" means jack sh*t if he has to spoil resources going all the way to the final primary in Utah on June 26. However, I see one scenario that seems like it may allow the conductor of the roller coaster to consider stopping the train at the platform.
Romney's win in Illinois will bring three days of "he's inevitable now, again, right?!" until he loses Louisiana which will bring "this thing is going through June, obviously." The next primaries won't take place until April 3rd, when Washington D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin hold their primaries.
Wisconsin could be the turning point in this race, and here's why. The most recent polling was done in late February so there really aren't reliable numbers right now, but those indicated a large, double-digit advantage for Santorum. If Romney's money and organization can allow him to mount a surge against Santorum in Wisconsin, a Romney win there could dramatically change the outlook of this race.
A Romney win in Wisconsin would illustrate two things, he would have shown that he can win in a state where he's never really been ahead, he will have won a state in the Midwest where Rick Santorum has been doing very well, actually. More importantly however, the next primary date, April 24, is the day when Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania will cast its vote for the GOP contenders.
I firmly believe a Romney win in Wisconsin (which would mean an April 3rd sweep) would make Pennsylvania more competitive for Romney by default. Romney will likely win the four other states that will vote on the 24th (New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island). If Romney can somehow make a surprising comeback and beat Santorum in Wisconsin, he could very well take Pennsylvania if he plays his cards right. If he wins Pennsylvania, that would mean Romney would have gone 8 for 8 in the month of April, with a favorable schedule for Santorum coming up in May. The only thing is, if Romney goes 8 for 8 in April, a real case about inevitability, one that's stronger than we've seen to this date, will creep into some of the Santorum-friendly states that vote in May. Then again, Romney could lose in Wisconsin, lose in Pennsylvania, take six of eight states in April, a huge chunk of delegates, and nothing would change because the narratives surrounding this race would stay the same.
And the roller coaster just, won't, stop.