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Advantage Romney in February, but Risks Abound

Conventional wisdom holds that the handful of states that vote in February are favorable ones for Mitt Romney. Still, Mr. Romney could be vulnerable in several of them.

Seven states will vote next month, although that includes a “beauty contest” primary in Missouri that will not affect delegate allocation and several caucuses with nonbinding results.

We have not released forecasts for the February states, but we will if they are polled more. In the meantime, here is a general lay of the land.

Feb. 4, Nevada caucuses. Mr. Romney won these by an overwhelming margin in 2008, but there was little campaigning for them because the South Carolina primary was on the same day. He should have an edge again this year because of the large number of Mormon voters in the state: 26 percent of Nevada Republican caucusgoers were Mormon in 2008, and nearly all of them voted for Mr. Romney. The financial and organizational reach of his campaign should help him in Nevada, as in other caucus states.

Still, the most recent public poll of the state, conducted by the University of Nevada Las Vegas in late December, found Mr. Romney with a relatively small advantage there, holding a 33-29 lead over Newt Gingrich. A recent internal poll for Mr. Gingrich’s campaign also showed a close race.

The Nevada polls were extremely inaccurate in 2008, projecting a much smaller margin of victory for Mr. Romney, and the same thing could happen this year.

But the 2012 and 2008 campaigns are substantially different. Although caucuses tend to benefit well-organized campaigns like Mr. Romney’s, they also tend to favor more conservative candidates whose supporters are more enthusiastic. Whereas Mr. Romney was running more toward the right of the Republican field in 2008, he is perceived this year as being relatively moderate. In Nevada, Mr. Romney’s advantage with Mormon voters should be enough to overcome that, but that may not be the case in other caucus states.

Feb. 7, Minnesota caucuses. Minnesota, for instance, could present some threat to Mr. Romney. In fact, Mr. Romney trailed Mr. Gingrich significantly in a recent poll from Public Policy Polling, and he was barely leading Rick Santorum and Representative Ron Paul for second place.

The poll was conducted last weekend, during what may have been the height of Mr. Gingrich’s surge in the polls after his victory in South Carolina. Still, if Minnesota is a moderate to liberal state overall, that is not necessarily true of its Republican voters, who have elected some conservative Republicans like Representative Michele Bachmann to the Congress. Mrs. Bachmann has yet to endorse anyone, but if she were to get behind a candidate like Rick Santorum, he could be aided there.

Note that in Minnesota, as well as in Colorado and Maine, the caucuses are a multistage process. Voters there will participate in a nonbinding presidential preference poll, but they will take a separate vote to pick delegates to regional conventions. This was the same process that took place in Iowa on Jan. 3. (Nevada is different; there, delegate selection actually is determined by the popular vote in the caucuses.)

Feb. 7, Colorado caucuses. Mr. Romney won the caucuses there by more than a 40-point margin in 2008. A Public Policy Polling survey in December put Newt Gingrich ahead there in this year’s race, although it was a poll of regular primary voters rather than potential caucus-goers.

Mr. Romney’s strength among Mormon voters could be of some benefit in Colorado, but probably not to the same extent as in Nevada: about 2.2 percent of Colorado’s general population is Mormon, versus 5.9 percent in Nevada. And Mr. Paul, who is well organized for the caucus states, could potentially threaten Mr. Romney there, since the Mountain West has historically been fertile territory for libertarians. Still, this looks like one of the safer states for Mr. Romney on balance.

Feb. 7, Missouri nonbinding primary. Missouri will hold a primary on Feb. 7, but it has no direct or indirect effect on delegate allocation, which will instead be determined in its March caucuses. Still, Missouri is an important state in the general election, so its results may generate some attention in the news media.

The state held a primary on Super Tuesday in 2008, and Mr. Romney finished a close third behind John McCain and Mike Huckabee. This year, Mr. Romney will have less competition, since Mr. Gingrich did not file in time to be on the ballot.

The state’s Republican electorate contains a fair number of religious conservatives, however, and that could help a candidate like Mr. Santorum. In fact, preliminary survey results from Public Policy Polling had Mr. Santorum in the lead in Missouri, and found that the exclusion of Mr. Gingrich from the ballot there tended to help him rather than Mr. Romney.

Feb. 4-11, Maine caucuses Maine takes a relaxed attitude toward its caucuses, with different towns convening at different times. Some will not hold caucuses until as late as March 3, although only those that hold them by Feb. 11 will be allowed to participate in the state’s presidential straw poll, and the results from the caucuses will be reported to the news media on that date.

Mr. Romney won the Maine caucuses easily in 2008 and could benefit from the fact that the state is in New England. Unlike New Hampshire, however, Maine is outside the Boston media market and can be more independent minded than the rest of the region.

The most recent poll of Maine, from Public Policy Polling in late October, found Herman Cain in the lead there at a time when he was surging in national polls, although it was a survey of people who usually participate in statewide primary elections, not necessarily in caucuses.

Instead, the more serious threat to Mr. Romney could be Mr. Paul, who departed Florida this week to campaign in the state.

Mr. Paul may have picked a good target: Maine has historically been very friendly to candidates like Mr. Paul who do not fit neatly onto the left-right political spectrum. It had an independent governor from 1995 to 2003, and nearly elected one again in 2010. And it was Ross Perot’s best state in 1992.

Feb. 28, Arizona primary. There will be nearly a monthlong break between Florida on Tuesday and the next pair of binding primaries, in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.

Arizona has a fairly sizable Mormon population, but those voters will have less political impact than in Nevada because primaries have much higher turnout than caucuses and tend to produce more evenly balanced demographics. In 2008, when the state primary was won by John McCain, a native son, 11 percent of voters there identified as Mormon.

Still, nearly all of those Mormon voters went for Mr. Romney, which should give him a built-in advantage. Mr. Romney’s hawkish stance on immigration, which he has tried to play down in Florida, could work to his benefit there, as it will be the first state along the Mexican border to vote. And Mr. Romney has Mr. McCain’s endorsement.

The polling in Arizona has been mixed. Although Mr. Romney held a 27-point lead in a poll conducted in early January, he was tied with Mr. Gingrich in a poll there in the last week.

Feb. 28, Michigan primary. Mr. Romney was born and raised in Michigan, and his father was governor there. And Mr. Romney won Michigan’s primary in 2008.

In some ways, however, it could be a tougher state for him than Arizona. Mr. Romney has not always performed well among working-class voters, and in 2008, 34 percent of Republican voters there made under $50,000 a year, a figure similar to South Carolina last week.

In addition, Mr. Romney suggested in late 2008 that General Motors should be allowed to go bankrupt rather than being bailed out. Opposing bailouts may be helpful to a Republican in most contexts, but perhaps not when it comes to the auto industry in Michigan, particularly given that General Motors’ position has since improved significantly.

A poll of Michigan, released this week, gave Mr. Romney a 5-point lead over Mr. Gingrich there. Mr. Romney had led by larger margins in earlier polls of the state, but some of that support may be based on name recognition in the state and hence relatively soft.

In short, although Mr. Romney has some strengths in February, he also has more vulnerabilities in some of these states than might be apparent on the surface. He could very much use the momentum of a big victory in Florida to help lessen the odds of an upset or two.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that no polling had been done in Colorado of the current field, but polling had been done.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.