Updated 11:55 p.m. Eastern Time
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Illinois Republican presidential primary on Tuesday night, defeating his closest rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, by double digits.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Romney had 47 percent of the votes cast to Santorum's 35 percent. Ron Paul was in third with 9 percent, and Newt Gingrich in fourth with 8 percent. Turnout was light in the state.
In victory remarks in Schaumburg, Illinois, Tuesday night, -- not his Republican primary opponents.
CBS News exit polls found that Romney, whose base of support was in Chicago and its suburbs, performed well among college graduates, Catholics and voters who see the economy as the most important issue facing the country. He also had a small edge over Santorum among those identifying as conservative. Santorum led Romney among white evangelicals and those identifying as very conservative.
Exit polls found that 42 percent of Illinois
Republican voters said Romney is not conservative enough, while a roughly equal
percentage said his positions were about right. Forty-six percent said
Santorum's positions were about right, while 34 percent said he was too
conservative and 13 percent said he was not conservative enough.
Romney was backed in Illinois by a massive spending advantage over the other candidates for the GOP nomination, as he has been in other states. According to a Campaign Media Analysis Group analysis, Romney and the super PAC backing him outspent Santorum and the super PAC backing him 18-1 on television ads in Illinois. Romney and his backers spent more than an estimated $3 million on television ads to Santorum's estimated $167,090.
Also boosting Romney was the perception that he has the best chance to defeat President Obama in November. Exit polls showed that 60 percent said Romney was the most electable candidate, compared to 23 percent for Santorum and nine percent for Gingrich.
In the exit polls, Romney led his rivals on the question of which candidate best
understands the problems of average Americans, with 36 percent support
to Santorum's 29 percent and Gingrich's 16 percent. In the Ohio primary,
the wealthy former CEO was at only 22 percent on this question.
Romney is now expected to take to take the lion's share of the 54 delegates up for grabs in Tuesday's primary, which are allocated proportionately. The former Massachusetts governor is focused on getting the 1,144
delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the convention. His
rivals are largely trying to keep Romney from that threshold, with the
hope of ultimately securing the nomination at a contested convention.
Santorum was not eligible for ten delegates in Illinois because his
campaign failed to identify supporters who could serve as delegates in
four congressional districts before the election. Neither Gingrich nor Paul seriously contested the state.
CBS News now estimates that Romney has 534 delegates, more than his three rivals combined. Santorum has 218 delegates in CBS News estimates, while Gingrich had 120 delegates and Paul had 42 delegates.
Santorum said before Election Day that he was holding out hope for a surprise victory driven by the more rural, conservative voters in the southern and western part of the state, saying it would "really send shockwaves" through the Republican establishment. He held four rallies and submitted to 19 interviews in Illinois on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to spur turnout among his largely-downstate supporters before heading to his home state of Pennsylvania, where voters go to the polls on April 24.
In addition to Pennsylvania, Santorum expects to do well in the Louisiana primary on Saturday and go on to win in Arkansas and Kentucky on May 22. He has also set his sights on Texas, which offers 155 delegates and which holds a primary on May 29.
In the short term, however, the offers Romney far better opportunities to garner delegates. There are primaries in April in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, most of which Romney is expected to win. In addition to Pennsylvania, Santorum's best chance for victories in April come in Maryland and Wisconsin.
The victory in Illinois is the third win in the Midwest for Romney, who attacked Santorum in the run-up to Tuesday's contest as having "the same economic lightweight background the president has." Santorum, who has been hammering Romney over his past support for an individual health care mandate and his past as a "Wall Street financier," shot back that "If Mitt Romney's an economic heavyweight, we're in trouble."
The Santorum campaign has argued that if Gingrich left the race it would open the door to Santorum winning the nomination on the strength of conservative support. In exit polls Tuesday, Illinois Republican voters were asked how they would vote if only Romney and Santorum were in the race. Forty-seven percent said they would support Romney, 41 percent chose Santorum, and 11 percent said they would not have voted.
In a statement Tuesday night, Gingrich took aim at Romney for spending so much to win and vowed to stay in the race, saying "we need a nominee who offers powerful solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures."
With the nomination seemingly within reach, Romney is expected to aim his rhetoric squarely at the president in preparation for the general election. His rivals, meanwhile, will faced increased pressure to leave the race so that the party can rally around a nominee and leave behind what has been a bruising primary fight.
"Tonight was a primary, but November is the general election," Romney said Tuesday evening. "And we're going to face a defining decision as a people. Our choice will not be about party or even personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot.