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Complacency a Threat to Romney in Wisconsin

Throughout the nomination process, Mitt Romney’s campaign has applied a sledgehammer approach to the delicate art of managing expectations. If campaign officials think Mr. Romney is going to win a state, they will find a way to broadcast that to the news media — even when it might not seem to their advantage to do so. If they think Mr. Romney will lose, then they won’t.

Wisconsin, which votes on Tuesday, is the latest data point in the pattern, with Mr. Romney predicting a win in a visit with campaign workers on Saturday.

Mr. Romney is right that the odds are in his favor. He has been ahead in all recent polls in Wisconsin. The FiveThirtyEight forecast model, which is based on the polls, projects about a 9-point win for him and gives him an 88 percent chance of victory.

Still, a 9-point polling lead is not completely safe. Instead, it is in a little bit of a danger zone — just large enough that some of Mr. Romney’s potential voters might take a win for granted and stay home, which could open the door for Rick Santorum.

There are signs of voter apathy in Wisconsin, a state that typically has a high turnout. The presidential primary is less of a story locally than the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, who will learn his fate in June.

Meanwhile, there has been relatively little increase in Google searches for the candidate’s names despite the impending primary. This is particularly true of Mr. Romney, who is now drawing less search traffic than Mr. Santorum.

This stands in contrast to previous states. In Michigan, for instance, you can observe a clear rise in search traffic, with voter interest increasing substantially in the dates surrounding that state’s primary on Feb. 28.

The other reason for Mr. Romney to be a little worried about Wisconsin is that the state’s demographics are not all that favorable to him. As Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard notes, Wisconsin is more rural than the Midwestern states that have voted for Mr. Romney, and outside of the Milwaukee suburbs, its Republicans have relatively modest incomes. There are also some assets for Mr. Romney — Wisconsin does not have an especially large number of evangelicals, for instance. But one only needs to look toward neighboring Minnesota, where Mr. Romney was crushed in the Feb. 7 caucus, to recognize that Wisconsin’s mix of demographics might be somewhat unfavorable to Mr. Romney on balance.

So why is Mr. Romney ahead in Wisconsin? Actually, that is pretty straightforward. Republican voters throughout the country seem to have warmed to him a bit. He now holds a 15-point lead over Mr. Santorum in the Gallup national tracking poll, numbers that have been fairly consistent in recent weeks.

That Mr. Romney has “only” a 9-point lead in Wisconsin, instead of the 15-point lead he has nationally, is consistent with the notion that the state is slightly worse than average for him. However, Mr. Romney is now in a position where he is winning his average states by a fairly clear margin, and should have some wiggle room in the case where one or two things run against him.

The voters who have recently come around to Mr. Romney in national polls may be doing so with some reluctance. He still has not been able to win over some key Republican demographic groups — but the votes he is getting have been enough to make his delegate math quite formidable. With an increasing number of Republican party leaders endorsing Mr. Romney, and with Mr. Santorum having trouble driving home his message, Republicans are growing accustomed to the notion that he is likely to be their nominee, and some may be prepared to get the contest over with.

It is one thing for voters to find you an acceptable choice, and another for them to actually turn out to vote. If some of Mr. Romney’s support is soft, he could be vulnerable to an upset in Wisconsin in the event of low turnout.

Mr. Romney does have one big advantage in Wisconsin — his “super PAC” has spent about $2.7 million there, as much as it did in Illinois even though Wisconsin has less than half of the population Illinois does and cheaper media markets. That is a pretty formidable ad buy, especially as compared with the roughly $700,000 that Mr. Santorum’s “super PAC” has spent. Still, Mr. Santorum has overperformed his poll numbers in most previous states despite being at a similar disadvantage.

I don’t want to make it sound as though an upset for Mr. Santorum is anything other than a long shot, but his chances are certainly much better than the 2 percent chance attributed to him by the betting market Intrade, which has already been burned for its overconfidence in some previous caucuses and primaries. (Bettors there saw Mr. Romney as near-certain to win Colorado, for instance, even once the bad results from Minnesota and Missouri began to roll in, and the market narrowly averted a similar disaster in Ohio.)

Perhaps, given Mr. Santorum’s history of doing better than the polls indicate, his odds are also slightly better than the 12 percent chance that the FiveThirtyEight model gives him. The model does not consider a candidate’s history of over-performing the polls when making its probabilistic forecasts — it takes the polls at face value, for better or for worse.

Whatever Mr. Santorum’s chances — 2 percent, 12 percent, 20 percent — Mr. Romney is taking an unnecessary risk by appearing so confident of victory. Mr. Romney almost certainly doesn’t need to win Wisconsin to win the nomination, especially since he should win Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday whatever happens there. But the more he raises expectations, the more negative headlines a loss in Wisconsin would generate, requiring him to focus more strenuously on the states left to vote in April, May and June rather than concentrating on the general election and President Obama.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.