The GOP primary has been over de facto for a number of weeks now. Despite many victories in the South and close races in the Midwest, Rick Santorum has not shown an ability to appeal to suburban Republicans and those not in the party base in virtually any race. Wisconsin’s loss confirms not only that the Santorum coalition is a minority of the GOP, but close examination shows that he is losing his grip on his own voters.
The exit poll shows Santorum ran even among very conservative voters. To win the nomination, he needs to win those voters by wide margins. He also continued to lose somewhat conservative voters, the largest single ideological segment of the primary electorate, by over 20 points. Once again he was demolished in the suburbs, losing all Milwaukee suburban counties by 15-30 points. But even worse, his margins in the rural counties were smaller than they were in Illinois just a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps that’s because he won white evangelicals by only four points, his smallest margin to date. Slowly, some part of the Santorum coalition is moving toward Romney, presumably to end the primary race and begin the general election in earnest.
The only reason Wisconsin is so close is that Santorum benefited from last-minute decisions by liberal Democrats to vote in the GOP primary, something the Badger State (which does not have partisan registration) permits. Santorum heavily carried the 11 percent of the electorate who said they were Democrats, the 12 percent who said they strongly oppose the Tea Party, and the 14 percent who strongly disapprove of Governor Scott Walker. Needless to say, there are not many states where liberal Democratic votes can deliver a Republican primary win.
Santorum has run a noble race and gained a lot of credit for himself and his views. He probably shouldn’t drop out now — his home state votes on April 24 and shortly thereafter some more conservative states cast their ballots. But for all practical intents, his chance at the nomination has gone to meet its maker and joined the choir invisible. His is an ex-campaign.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.