Republican primary polling in Illinois has been trending in one direction since the beginning of March: Towards Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has expanded his lead from inside margin-of-error to the mid-teens over the last two weeks. I'd imagine his overwhelming Puerto Rico victory and 7-to-1 spending advantage over Santorum have helped move that needle. ARG is out with a new survey out that closely mirrors PPP's numbers from yesterday:
Mitt Romney leads the Illinois Republican presidential primary with 44%. Romney is followed by Rick Santorum with 30%, Newt Gingrich with 13%, and Ron Paul with 8%. Romney leads Santorum 45% to 35% among self-identified Republicans, followed by Gingrich with 12% and Paul with 4%. Among self-identified independents and Democrats, Romney leads with 42%, followed by Paul with 20%, Gingrich with 17%, and Santorum with 16%. Romney leads Santorum 51% to 36% among likely Republican primary voters saying they have voted in early voting or by absentee ballot. Romney leads Santorum 43% to 30% among those saying they will vote on March 20, followed by Gingrich with 15% and Paul with 8%.
I'd consider both new polls with a fair degree of skepticism, for two reasons. (1) As Ed Morrissey points out, neither polling outfit performed particularly well in last week's round of primary contests. (2) Several plugged-in sources in Illinois tell me the race "feels" closer on the ground, for what it's worth. WGN-TV political analyst and long-time conservative activist Chris Robling says saw an internal poll last week that showed Romney leading Santorum in Cook County (Chicago) by 10, the surrounding "collar counties" by 20, and running even downstate, which is typically a bastion of conservatism. Those figures would bode very well for Team Romney, but Robling tells me "everything since then has indicated a significant tightening. I would not be surprised to see a very close race, and I'd estimate Santorum's chances of winning at maybe 40 percent." Robling says Santorum has emerged as a "safe harbor for the many conservatives who have problems with Mitt Romney," but still believes Romney will prevail by low single digits. He added that he would "strongly support" the eventual nominee. Another Illinois conservative insider senses similar late momentum for Santorum, pointing to the former Senator's large and enthusiastic crowds. While both operatives acknowledge that public polling has recently parted ways with their instincts, Robling correctly mentions that multiple polls have underestimated Santorum's actual results throughout this race.
Illinois Republican voters, especially in the heavily populated Chicago suburbs, often tend to favor more moderate candidates in primary elections. For instance, center-right figure Sen. Mark Kirk handily won the party's nod in 2010, albeit after what Robling describes as an "assiduous effort" to court conservatives. A much more conservative candidate whose social issues came into play won the gubernatorial primary, but lost in the general election -- a dynamic that could boost Romney this cycle. It's definitely possible that Santorum is on the upswing overall and will carry downstate by a decent margin, but Romney can more than make up that ground in places like Cook, Will, DuPage and Lake Counties. What nearly all observers agree on is that even if Santorum shocks everyone and captures Illinois' popular vote tonight, Romney is still likely to walk away with more delegates. Fifty-four of the Prairie State's 69 delegates are up for grabs this evening, but Santorum's ceiling is 44. Due to early logistical struggles, Team Santorum failed to qualify a full slate in four Congressional districts, and will therefore automatically forfeit ten delegates right off the top. Thoughts on the problem that little detail exacerbates, Santorum spokesman?
"We're not focused on delegate math," says Santorum adviser on conf call about delegate math.
Gosh, I wonder why. Romney will hold his election night rally in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois. Santorum will spend the evening in Pennsylvania. Polls close at 8pm ET. Prediction: No matter what transpires later tonight, the clear winner of this primary will be Ditka.
UPDATE - An important and bizarre point I should have mentioned above: Illinois statewide popular vote has no bearing on delegate allotment. It's a "beauty contest." The real action is the elected delegates, which are awarded on a winner-take all basis by Congressional district. Illinois has 19 CDs, but as I noted earlier, 4 are off the table for Santorum.