Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney has won Illinois, giving him a boost as he heads toward the southern Louisiana primary March 24.
Based on exit polls and projections, Romney was declared the winner in the first hour after polls closed, and with only 12 percent of the vote counted. With 71 percent of the vote counted, Romney was leading Rick Santorum by more than 10 points.
A strong win will give Romney the lion’s share of the bound 54 delegates up for grabs in the Illinois primary, but winning a large share of the popular vote will also strengthen his argument that he is the best candidate to be the Republican presidential nominee.
Romney led strongly in the suburban ‘collar counties’ around Chicago and in urban areas, where exit polls indicated more than 70 percent of the voters resided.
According to the polls, Romney also won 75 percent of those voters who said electability was a key issue.
Rick Santorum, who has won contests in neighboring Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, chose to reach out to the more conservative voters in the rural areas of the state.
According to exit polls, the former Pennsylvania senator led among evangelical, strongly conservative voters, and those with incomes under $50,000.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich polled badly in Illinois, gaining 9 percent of the vote with over 70 percent counted. Gingrich was marginally above Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who gained 8 percent of the vote.
The test will now be how well Romney can go into Louisiana after coming in third in nearby southern states, Mississippi and Alabama; and for Gingrich, whether he can muster enough support in the south to keep his flagging campaign alive.