Unlike some of his Republican rivals, Mitt Romney has spent little time this year comparing himself to Ronald Reagan. But when it comes to their pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, similarities abound.
Both lost their first full-throated bid for their party’s nomination – Reagan in 1976, Romney in 2008 (albeit Reagan also lost an earlier 11th-hour try in 1968 whose formal candidacy was measured in days rather than months).
Both Republicans were able to follow their losing efforts with more successful campaigns – Reagan in 1980, Romney this year – that were punctuated by decisive early-season primary victories in New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois.
In Illinois, their victory margins were virtually identical. Reagan polled 48% of the Republican primary vote in 1980 to defeat home state Rep. John Anderson by a margin of nearly 12 percentage points. Romney drew 47% of the vote this year to triumph over Rick Santorum by almost a dozen points.
Of Illinois’ three basic elements – Cook County (Chicago and its immediate environs), the suburban “collar counties” that ring Chicago on three sides, and the vast, largely rural “downstate” – Reagan and Romney each won two.
Yet they basically took opposite paths to victory. Reagan, who was raised in small town Illinois, dominated the state’s 1980 GOP primary voting downstate and narrowly prevailed in the collar counties. He lost Cook County to Anderson. Altogether, Reagan swept 95 of the state’s 102 counties.
Meanwhile, Romney, who has been most potent as a vote-getter this year in the metro areas, won big last month in Cook County and the “collars,” but lost the downstate vote to Rick Santorum. Romney ended up carrying less than 30 counties in the March primary, although many of those he took were vote rich.
Romney can hope that Illinois marks the beginning of the end for the 2012 Republican race as it did for Reagan in 1980. Barely a month after his home state defeat, Anderson had recast himself as an independent presidential candidate. Reagan’s other major rival, George H.W. Bush, limped on for a while, scoring scattered victories in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Michigan, before quitting the race in late May.
But along the way, Reagan furthered his cause by scoring a conclusive early April victory in Wisconsin over Bush and Anderson. The upcoming vote in the Badger State offers a similar opportunity for Romney.