You can mark down March 19, 2012, as the day the Republican Presidential Primary ended. It's over. The slog will continue through June, but Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee.
My number one reason for declaring the race over is not that Rick Santorum is down by double-digits in the Illinois polls, has again failed to field a full slate of delegates, has failed to persuade Newt Gingrich to depart the race, and has continued to fall further behind Romney in the delegate count -- though those are all persuasive pieces of evidence.
Instead it's that I heard a snippet of one of his Illinois speeches from yesterday in which he drew the a direct comparison between this campaign and Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign. So, let the record show that Santorum 2012 shut down operations on March 19, 2012, and Santorum 2016 begins today.
This might make tonight's results and speeches interesting for a couple of reasons. Santorum will need to provide a rationale for continuing to campaign to the convention while reaching out to those Republicans who will want him to pack it in. The Republican Party has a long track record of nominating the second-place finisher from the previous cycle, so Santorum has good reason to think that if he can finish a strong second, he will have a clear shot at the 2016 nomination. But he may want to be cautious about how much further damage he does to Mitt Romney along the way. Campaigning through to the convention isn't a bad strategy if he has truly set his sights on 2016 because it will allow him to build the contacts and structures in states that may bear fruit in four years.
If Santorum mentions Reagan 1976 or spends most of his speech tonight focusing on Obama instead of Romney, you can take that as a 2012 concession.
Romney's speech could also be interesting, though we're more likely to see his standard stump than anything else. Romney has been trying to pivot to the general election for some time now, but Santorum has continually dragged him out onto the far-right wing of the Republican Party on social issues. Romney will soon want to convince one and all that he didn't mean all the things he had to say to win the Republican nomination. But that backpeddle may be especially tricky for a candidate who already has credibility problems with his stands on the issues. If nothing else, this primary campaign has certainly provided the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign with hours of Romney videotape to cherry pick for advertisements this fall.
So, I see little potential for a surprising outcome in Illinois, but we could have a couple of potentially significant speeches tonight.