The late and decisive Illinois polling shift toward Mitt Romney turned out to be the real deal. The prohibitive Republican frontrunner racked up a surprisingly large popular vote victory in the Land of Lincoln, winning more comfortably than polls had anticipated even a week ago. Some on-the-ground rumblings that Santorum may have been marshalling a final push turned out to be rather exaggerated. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the former Massachusetts governor has attracted 47 percent of the vote to Santorum's 35 pecent. Looking at the Illinois exit polls, it's obvious why Romney did so well: He won men, women, almost every age group, married people, unmarried people, Republicans, independents, conservatives, moderates, Tea Party supporters, Protestants, and Catholics. A plurality of Illinois Republicans said selecting a candidate who can beat President Obama in the fall was their top criterion. Among them, Romney won resoundingly. Santorum carried some voting blocs, too -- winning lower income voters, "very conservative" voters, and Evangelicals.
Romney used the occasion of his victory to deliver one of his most energetic and passionate speeches of the campaign. As he's done after triumphs in places like New Hampshire and Florida, victor paid passing homage to his GOP rivals, then laid into President Obama's failed record and wrong-headed goals for the country. "Enough:"
After a series of effective jabs and jokes, he reached this pivotal passage:
You and I know what President Obama still has not learned, even after three years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending: The government does not create prosperity; prosperity is the product of free markets and free people. This November, we face a defining decision. Our choice will not be one of party or personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot. I am offering a real choice and a new beginning. I am running for President because I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess. We know what Barack Obama’s vision of America is – we’ve all lived it the last three years. Mine is very different. I see an America where we know the prospects for our children will be better than our own; where the pursuit of success unites us, not divides us; when a government finally understands that it’s better for more to pay less in taxes than for a few to pay more; where the values we pass on to our children are greater than the debts we leave them; where poverty is defeated by opportunity, not enabled a government check.
This dichotomy of competing visions for the future of our nation was an appropriate bookend to Paul Ryan's budget rollout this morning. I believe the dynamics of the general election race came into clearer focus over the last 12 hours. Earlier today, the GOP's top policy guru laid out a plan designed to foster growth and prosperity through sensible reforms and economic liberty. Tonight, the party's likely presidential nominee echoed those themes and further defined the clash of ideas between which voters will choose in November. Growth, solvency, and liberty vs. debt, doubt, and decline. Although this nominating marathon will press forward (Santorum explicitly pointed to his home state's April 24th primary during his concession speech), we may look back on this day as a defining one -- in the contexts of both the primary and general elections.
UPDATE - As of this writing, Newt Gingrich is in fourth place, trailing Ron Paul by a single point. Newt has been tweeting complaints about Romney's spending advantage and Santorum's Senate record. He also rapped Romney over the "low turnout," suggesting that the Republican base wasn't excited about a race in which he was on the ballot. (Turnout was up over 2008). As for the cash disparity critique, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said fundraising is an important part of politics and likened Gingrich's gripes to those of a basketball team blaming their loss on taller opponents.
UPDATE II (12:15 am) - At the moment, Romney leads the Illinois delegate count 41-10 with just a handful remaining. This is a major boon to Romney and a disappointment to the Santorum cap, which ahd publicly stated that they exepected to win as many as 24 delegates in Illinois. We'll keep an eye on the final tally, which is ultimately far more relevant than the popular vote "beauty contest" that makes Illinois' primary system so unusual.