Wisconsin Primary results: Romney wins

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the Wisconsin Primary on Tuesday, making it a clean sweep for him in Tuesday’s contested races. He also won primaries in Maryland and Washington, D.C. The victories provide him with an important boost as he attempts to wrap up the Republican presidential nomination.

And now the big question is: How much longer will former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum stay in the race?

Even the most die-hard political junkies could be forgiven for wondering when the Republican presidential race will take its last heaving breath and keel over, never to be heard from again.

The death rattle is clearly audible in the race these days, as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney spars with the White House while former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum tries, in vain, to convince an ever-shrinking piece of the Republican electorate that this race is still a race.

Santorum has avoided calling Wisconsin, which is set to hold its presidential primary today, a must-win for his continued existence in the race (as opposed to the Pennsylvania primary later this month, which he acknowledges he has to win). On Monday, he told reporters that “I think in this primary, the longer it goes the better it is for the party.”

But, there is growing evidence that the protracted primary is actually hurting the party’s chances. The latest piece of bad news for Republicans? A Gallup/USA Today poll of 12 swing states that shows Romney trailing President Obama by nine points, a deficit directly tied to the Republican’s struggles among women voters.

The problem for Republicans is that, while the political professional class badly wants the primary to be over, there’s little evidence that voters feel the same. In the Illinois primary exit poll, two-thirds of people said they wanted the primary to go on as long as it took for their preferred candidate to win. Three in four people who supported Santorum said they didn’t mind an elongated primary as long as their guy managed to win.

Combine Santorum’s dogged refusal to talk endgame and the strong desire among his supporters for him to stay in the race and it’s tough to imagine a scenario by which Wisconsin brings a formal end to the contest.

“It would take a crushing defeat ... 12 to 15 points, and even then he might hang on,” said Paul Wilson, a consultant to Romney-supporting Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.. “He holds out improbable hope that there will be a delegate miracle at the convention.”

Polling — of which there hasn’t been much — suggests Santorum is likely to lose but not by a double-digit margin. An NBC/Marist poll last week showed Romney leading Santorum 40 percent to 33 percent, and the Pollster.com average of all surveys conducted in the state features a similar margin.

If Romney can over-perform polls — and he’s rarely done that in the nomination race to date — then he might be able to bring enough pressure to bear on Santorum that the former Pennsylvania senator seriously weighs dropping out.

But if Romney wins by between five and seven points, it seems a near-certainty that Santorum stays in the race all the way through April 24, when his home state of Pennsylvania votes.

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