CHICAGO — That Mitt Romney is expected to win Illinois shouldn’t come as much of a shock. Not only has he drastically outspent his main GOP rival Rick Santorum, but the demographic make-up of the state is tailor-made for the ex-Massachusetts governor.
More than 60 percent of the vote is expected to come from the Chicago-area suburbs, while a much smaller portion of the vote comes from rural downstate.
Suburban voters are typically less ideological and focused more on pocket book issues than social issues, something that should prove right up Romney’s alley.
But a drive through suburban Chicago found pockets of deep Santorum enthusiasm and underlying concern about Romney’s inability to connect with voters.
Romney supporter state Rep. David Harris, who represents the Cook County suburb of Mt. Prospect, worries that Romney still hasn’t been able to connect with skeptical conservative Republicans.
“I think Mitt Romney is just as conservative as Ronald Reagan — when Reagan said something, you kind of felt it’s coming from his soul. You just know that’s the way the guy feels,” said Harris, whose office displays photos of his days as a Reagan campaign aide. “And while I believe that Mitt Romney is just as conservative and feels those same things, it just doesn’t come across or get conveyed the same way.”
Moreover, Harris sees an enthusiasm gap in the suburbs that could hurt Romney.
“This is a very quiet election,” Harris said. “The more quiet the election, the more committed type of person comes out. Perhaps Sen. Santorum’s folks are a little bit more committed, so I think you’ll see a good turnout for him. I think Gov. Romney will win, but the percentage of victory might not be as big as it otherwise might have been.”
Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran is one of those enthusiastic Santorum supporters who should worry the Romney camp. At a local tavern in leafy Long Grove, Curran, a former Democrat, denounced Romney as out of touch or, as he put it, “off in la-la-land.”
“I think Romney travels in circles of only the uber-rich and as a result he has a hard time connecting with large blocks of America — certainly the middle class, which is very much overlooked right now,” Curran said. “Santorum is being outspent 10-1, he is being destroyed in misleading ads, but he’s still there. Why? Because when people meet him, they see he’s the real deal, his authenticity.”
Curran, who endorsed Santorum late last week, described a Friday rally in nearby Arlington Heights for Santorum as “more electric than any political rally I’ve ever been to on either side. They love this guy. Romney — all he and the crowd had going for them was there was a Starbucks close by. There’s just nothing there to energize anybody about Mitt Romney right now.”
Long Grove Mayor Maria Rodriguez concurred with Curran’s assessment of the race.
“I think more and more people that I’m hearing from were Romney supporters because they thought he could beat Obama and that was the driving force, but at this point if they can get someone who’s authentic and tells the truth and can beat Obama, they’re for him.”
However, Romney is expected to easily carry both Lake and Cook Counties. What bears watching there is his margin of victory. If he is to win the nomination, Romney needs to be able to tell the story of how he rallied voters to him rather than simply pushing voters away from Santorum.