Heavy support from Chicago suburbs and counties around the city helped Mitt Romney win the GOP popular vote in the Illinois primary Tuesday, according to a state exit poll.
While chief rival Rick Santorum won exurban and rural areas in Illinois, those Republican voters did not turn out in big enough numbers for the former Pennsylvania governor.
Romney's team knew that the suburbs were key -- and scheduled a series of stops in the northwest suburbs in the closing days of the Illinois campaign. "You saw our schedule, we had a plan and we executed it successfully," said one Romney aide.
Romney won 57 percent of the vote in Cook County suburbs, compared to 27 percent for Santorum, 8 percent for Ron Paul and 7 percent for Newt Gingrich, according to the exit poll.
The Illinois exit poll provided a vivid snapshot of Republicans in the Land of Lincoln: who they are and what they believe in -- at least on Tuesday.
Or, numbers aside, another way to analyze the Romney win was from the gut.
"In Illinois, Republicans are hungry for a winner," said David Loveday, a veteran GOP strategist at the Romney election night event at the Renaissance Hotel Convention Center in Schaumburg.
When asked "on most political matters" what they consider themselves, 29 percent of Illinois GOP primary voters described themselves as moderate, 34 percent said somewhat conservative and 30 percent very conservative.
Romney won 54 percent of the somewhat conservative vote to 34 percent for Santorum. The difference was in the smaller very conservative vote, which Santorum won with 49 percent to 36 percent for Romney.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor -- one time seen as a moderate -- has had to prove and reprove that he is a conservative during the campaign.
With more than half the Republicans voting conservative, "Illinois conservatives believe Mitt's the man," said Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who stumped across the state with Romney. "He has the conservative credentials."
While Romney won the somewhat conservative vote, his potential appeal as a November nominee against President Barack Obama comes from his reach, at least in Illinois, where Romney ran away with the moderate vote, 49 percent to 26 percent for Santorum.
Romney won people who saw themselves as independents -- 40 percent compared to 31 percent for Santorum.
While the evangelical vote was very important in other states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, in Illinois, only 43 percent said they were "born again" compared with 57 percent who said they were not. Santorum, who stumped in Illinois churches, won 47 percent of the evangelical vote to 27 percent for Romney.
Social issues did not play a major role in the Illinois vote -- 56 percent said the economy was their major issue, 12 percent said abortion and only 4 percent said illegal immigration.
As in other states, Romney won voters with higher incomes and more education. Santorum did best with voters without a college degree who made less than $50,000.
Romney and his SuperPAC allies massively outspent Santorum on ads -- running even on Tuesday, Election Day. Some 59 percent said the ads were not important in determining their vote.