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Five Paths Forward for G.O.P. Nomination

Although Mitt Romney is the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination after his victory in Florida, the evidence is mixed as to how robust his advantage is. Below, we will draw on the Florida results and historical precedents to consider five different scenarios for the Republican race going forward.

Interpretation No. 1: It’s All Over but the Concession Speeches.

What Happens Next — The Short Version: Mr. Romney gets some real and sustainable momentum from Florida and wraps up the nomination quickly and easily.

What Happens Next — The Long Version: Mr. Romney gets a lift in national polls and takes a considerable lead in most surveys. He easily wins next week’s caucuses, building further momentum. He begins to roll out more endorsements, including some important and surprising ones from conservative leaders who are trusted by the Republican base. Rick Santorum drops out and either endorses Mr. Romney outright or otherwise makes clear that he considers Mr. Romney the most acceptable choice. Newt Gingrich either drops out or reverts to running a half-hearted campaign.

Popular attention to the nomination race dwindles, and the news media’s focus shifts to the general election. The outcome of Super Tuesday is a foregone conclusion. Any further losses that Mr. Romney takes are a result of special circumstances — for instance, to Mr. Gingrich in Mr. Gingrich’s home state of Georgia.

Precedent: The 2000 Republican race is the best example of a contest in which the front-runner, George W. Bush, lost a couple of early states but was perhaps never in any real danger of losing the nomination.

The Evidence For: This is a fairly common path, historically speaking. Nominations are generally not won without at least a few twists and turns — in the modern primary era, Al Gore was the only non-incumbent to sweep all 50 states.

There is also theoretical evidence for this scenario in the political science scholarship. A nomination race is a delegate-counting contest in theory, but if at all possible, the nominee is picked by consensus, with influential party leaders nudging the process along if it seems to go astray. Mr. Romney is the clear choice of party leaders, having far more endorsements than any other candidate. He was also the only candidate deemed to be acceptable by a majority of Republicans in a January Gallup survey.

The Evidence Against: If there is evidence for this case in past nomination races, this cycle has not followed the pattern. The polling has been much more volatile than in the past, and primary and caucus wins have produced fleeting momentum at best.

In addition, Republican voters already passed on one opportunity to wrap up the race early, turning against Mr. Romney after his win in New Hampshire. In contrast to candidates like Mr. Bush, Mr. Romney lost his national polling lead after New Hampshire, something that is usually the hallmark of a prolonged nomination campaign.

Moreover, Mr. Romney is potentially a flawed standard-bearer for his party, having once held a number of positions that Republican voters now regard as unacceptable. And if Republican opinion leaders are clearly against Mr. Gingrich, their embrace of Mr. Romney has been lukewarm.

Evaluation: This scenario is plausible, but the evidence for it is more theoretical than empirical. If it is to occur, we should begin to see some clear sign of it almost immediately, especially in national polls.

However, it should be noted that a candidate does not necessarily need to be a world-beater to take advantage of this pathway to the nomination — John Kerry did so in 2004. He just has to be better than the alternatives.

Interpretation No. 2: Florida Is the New Normal.

What Happens Next — The Short Version: Florida is the best benchmark for the Republican race going forward: Mr. Romney has a clear but not overwhelming advantage. The race may continue for some time, particularly depending on the preferences of Mr. Gingrich, but in such a way that the ultimate outcome is not seriously in doubt.

What Happens Next — The Long Version: Mr. Romney endures a few more losses along the way, including in some midsize states, especially in the South. However, he wins the clear majority of contests. His advantages are accentuated by his performance in caucus states and his support among automatic delegates (the Republican equivalent of “super delegates”).

Volatility in the race decreases. Mr. Romney holds a stable if not overwhelming lead in national polls. There may be a point or two at which Mr. Romney loses a state unexpectedly, but this is not accompanied by a pronounced decline in his national poll ratings.

Meanwhile, some swing voters grow impatient with Mr. Gingrich, especially as his path to the nomination becomes more mathematically implausible. Some of them begin to support Mr. Romney just to get the contest over with.

Precedent: The 1992 Democratic race featured a gadfly candidate, Jerry Brown, who was never any real threat to win the nomination. Bill Clinton, the front-runner that year, did endure a handful of losses to Mr. Brown, but he never lost his lead in national polls and was able to place most of his focus on November.

The Evidence For: Mr. Romney’s 14-point win in Florida — a large and diverse state — bodes well for his chances going forward. His win was fairly sweeping demographically — somewhat less so geographically (he actually lost a majority of counties) — but overall about at the level of a candidate who might expect to win about 40 of the 50 states.

There is some evidence — based on my research into state and national polling — that volatility tends to decrease as the race progresses and as candidate preferences solidify.

Finally, this is arguably the path of least resistance. The Republican Party has some real differences to work out — if the Tea Party has had less presence in the Republican race than might be expected, the underlying sentiments behind it have not necessarily eroded. And it can be hard for a party to settle on a nominee quickly when a better one might be imagined. At the same time, Mr. Romney is probably the party’s most rational choice: he may have the best chance of defeating President Obama, and in this campaign he has been careful not to stray from the party’s general policy positions.

The Evidence Against: Although Florida may be more populous than the other early-voting states, it does not necessarily follow that it has more predictive power. And some of Mr. Romney’s advantage came from groups like Cuban-Americans that do not have a large presence in other states.

Also, this scenario implies reduced volatility in the rest of the nomination contest. But volatility has been so high that you could cut it in half and it would still be well above-average.

Evaluation: This in-between path tends to occur when a candidate who has little mathematical chance to win the race nevertheless refuses to drop out. Arguably, that could be true for Mr. Gingrich, as it was for Mr. Brown. Mr. Gingrich is disliked enough by party elites that he probably has little to lose by staying in the race. And he may feel aggrieved enough by Mr. Romney’s campaign that he will continue on even if the odds are against him. In addition, Ron Paul is likely to stay in the race for some time regardless of Mr. Gingrich’s decision.

In other words, this scenario is highly plausible. But Mr. Romney would only be in danger if he committed some game-changing gaffe, with the risk diminishing as his mathematical advantage mounted.

Interpretation No. 3: Anybody but Romney? Certainly Not Newt.

What Happens Next — The Short Version: Support for Mr. Gingrich erodes more than support for Mr. Romney builds. There is a limited window of opportunity for Mr. Santorum, but he needs considerable luck to take advantage of it. Mr. Romney probably wins, perhaps fairly easily, but there is some drama along the way.

What Happens Next — The Long Version:. Mr. Gingrich experiences a significant decline in national polls and does poorly in the caucus states. He gets no more support from his “super PAC,” and his campaign becomes increasingly unfocused.

However, Republicans are not necessarily ready to gravitate to Mr. Romney. Instead, they give Mr. Santorum another look, and he is buoyed by some modest success like a strong finish in the Minnesota caucus or a win in the Missouri beauty contest primary.

Mr. Santorum is competitive in several Super Tuesday states, including Ohio, and proves to be a reasonably strong match for Mr. Romney in the debates. Mr. Gingrich is not eager to drop out, but some of his supporters gravitate toward Mr. Santorum as he comes to be seen as more viable, perhaps forcing the issue.

Still, Mr. Santorum faces some considerable disadvantages: he lacks resources, and is always running from behind in the delegate count. He has a chance to win if everything breaks just right, but more likely concedes after a failed last stand in a state like Texas or Wisconsin on April 3. Mr. Romney takes some limited damage for the general election, but of the kind that would make a difference only in an extremely close race.

Precedent: In recent nomination races, there has not been a good example of a “third wheel” candidate coming from behind to emerge with the nomination. Instead, this scenario bears more resemblance to the period between about 1968 and 1976, when the nomination process was in a transitional phase. Jimmy Carter in 1976, for instance, was not an ideal Democratic nominee, but prevailed after “anybody but Carter” efforts fizzled. The closest thing to an exception is probably 1972, when George McGovern came from behind to win the Democratic nomination, but Mr. McGovern took considerable advantage of the party’s new delegate allocation rules, which he had helped to design.

The Evidence For: Mr. Santorum’s favorability ratings are fairly good, and in some ways he could complicate Mr. Romney’s calculus. On the electability front, for instance, Mr. Santorum has the best net favorability rating among general election voters, although it is still in net-negative territory. And Mr. Santorum is a reasonably good debater who has less baggage than Mr. Gingrich.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gingrich has a number of clear flaws as a candidate. (One reason that Mr. Romney has been able to limit Mr. Gingrich’s momentum is because of his monetary advantages, but another is because things like Mr. Gingrich’s associations with Freddie Mac are inherently hard to defend.) Mr. Gingrich’s campaign is not terribly well-organized and is unlikely to do well in the caucus states, perhaps creating an opening for Mr. Santorum.

The Evidence Against: This scenario depends on the notion that there is a strong desire for an “anybody but Romney” candidate — and the evidence for that is mixed. Some polls suggest, for instance, that supporters of Mr. Santorum prefer Mr. Romney to Mr. Gingrich, and that supporters of Mr. Gingrich prefer Mr. Romney to Mr. Santorum. In the Florida exit polls, 65 percent of voters said that they would be satisfied with Mr. Romney as their nominee, and 77 percent said that they liked Mr. Romney personally.

Mr. Santorum, meanwhile, was unable to take advantage of his momentum after a strong showing in Iowa, despite some concerted effort by some key Republican constituencies to get behind him. One issue that Mr. Santorum faces is that he is not of the Tea Party generation of Republicans, instead having won his Senate seat in 1994 and having taken a position in the party leadership. Another is that his emphasis, more conservative on social policy than on fiscal policy, cuts somewhat against the mood of the Republican base right now.

Finally, this scenario would be much more plausible if Mr. Gingrich were to drop out and endorse Mr. Santorum, but for the aforementioned reasons, Mr. Gingrich may be unlikely to do so.

Evaluation: This scenario relies on a number of things coming together for Mr. Santorum. None of the individual elements are entirely implausible, but the odds are strongly against his pulling everything together. And during the time that voters might be flipping to Mr. Santorum from Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Romney would be expanding his delegate advantage, making Mr. Santorum’s path harder.

Interpretation No. 4: Rinse, Lather, Repeat.

What Happens Next — The Short Version: There continues to be considerable volatility in the Republican race and any advantage that Mr. Romney has is tenuous. But he retains a slight edge in national polls and a clearer one in the delegate math. Mr. Gingrich remains his main rival.

What Happens Next — The Long Version: Mr. Romney gets little bounce in national polls from Florida or if he does, it fades quickly. He loses a couple of states in February, and a number of them on Super Tuesday. Still, Mr. Romney also wins his share of states and remains reasonably well-prepared for a war of attrition. The race remains volatile, and Mr. Romney endures some potential general election damage. But he is something like a 75 percent or 80 percent favorite to emerge with the nomination, with the victory probably occurring well before the convention.

Precedent: The 1984 Democratic race was reasonably close between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. That race bears some resemblance to this one, in that Mr. Mondale was an establishment-backed nominee whom rank-and-file voters had limited enthusiasm for. Still, Mr. Mondale had a reasonably clear edge throughout the race in the delegate count, benefiting from this organizational advantages in caucus states, and he wrapped the nomination up before the convention.

The Evidence For: This is arguably the least assumption-driven scenario. It posits that the volatility so far in the Republican race implies continued volatility. It does not ignore the data from Florida — but it also does not ignore the evidence from South Carolina. Instead, it suggests that the former was something of a high-water mark for Mr. Romney and the latter a low-water mark, and that the race will continue to oscillate between these two poles.

The news media could assist this outcome. The news media tends to root for volatility, which can produce better story-lines. And Mr. Gingrich might be able to exploit free media coverage in such a way that mitigates his disadvantage in paid media to Mr. Romney.

The Evidence Against: Even if you take the first four early-voting states as a whole, they look reasonably good for Mr. Romney. He has received 40 percent of Republican votes so far, versus 31 percent for Mr. Gingrich, his next-closest competitor.

One can argue that this analysis puts too much weight on Florida, which was more populous than the other early-voting states. But if you instead just average the vote share from the first four states, Mr. Romney is not really any worse off: he received 34 percent of the vote, on average, between Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, versus 24 percent for Mr. Gingrich.

Therefore this scenario, like No. 3, tends to default the notion that there is a desire for an “anybody but Romney” candidate, something for which the evidence is mixed. And even if there is such a desire, Mr. Romney’s advantage in delegates is nontrivial, especially considering his likely win in Virginia, where Mr. Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot.

Evaluation: Highly plausible. But this scenario does not necessarily result in Mr. Romney being defeated. Instead, he could “win ugly” — but probably by a clear enough margin to spare himself the spectacle of a brokered convention. Still, this interpretation would imply that there was some genuine doubt about the outcome — and that it is early enough that the wrong sequence of events could put Mr. Romney in a lot of danger.

Interpretation No. 5: Florida Was a Fluke.

What Happens Next — The Short Version: A fight to the finish. Mr. Romney’s win in Florida resulted from idiosyncratic circumstances and has little predictive power for future states. He might win the nomination nevertheless, but he and Mr. Gingrich have assets and liabilities that roughly balance each other out.

What Happens Next — The Long Version: National polls continue to point toward a highly ambiguous result. Mr. Romney takes some hard-to-excuse losses in February — perhaps he wins Nevada because of his advantage among Mormon voters, but he loses either Arizona or Michigan on Feb. 28. Then his performance on Super Tuesday is underwhelming, and he loses Ohio. Mr. Romney has a number of opportunities to rebound but may or may not take advantage of them. Mr. Santorum drops out of the race — and although he might not endorse Mr. Gingrich, most of his voters wind up in Mr. Gingrich’s camp.

There is some chance of a brokered convention under this scenario, and an outside chance of a compromise candidate who is not running for president currently.

Precedent: Evenly matched fights to the finish have been rare; the closest thing to an exception was the 2008 Democratic nomination race.

The Evidence For: A large number of Republican voters are unhappy with their field of candidates — and in contrast to years like 2008, the numbers have been worsening rather than improving. The nominal front-runner, Mr. Romney, has arguably not had his vulnerabilities tested — but in a prolonged race voters will come to weigh things like his health care bill against him. National polls continue to show an even race, with Mr. Romney struggling in some important states like Missouri and Ohio.

Meanwhile, it can be argued that Mr. Romney won Florida because of his advantage in advertising dollars. There is some suggestion that the regions in which Mr. Romney performed the most strongly in Florida are those where he ran an especially large percentage of advertisements. In most states, the argument goes, Mr. Gingrich would be able to overcome Mr. Romney’s advantage with a strong performance in the debates, but Mr. Gingrich was uncharacteristically off his game in the two debates in Florida.

The Evidence Against: It is not as though Mr. Romney’s edge in advertising dollars is likely to evaporate. Instead, he should have the resources to counter any potential surge by Mr. Gingrich, as he successfully did in both Iowa and Florida. The national polls are a lagging indicator and reflect voters that have not been exposed to the campaign, but there is reasonably clear evidence for what happens once they are. And there is no reason to simply ignore Florida, which gave Mr. Romney a decisive win and which is far more representative of the Republican primary electorate than the other states which have voted so far.

Evaluation: This is essentially the pro-Gingrich spin on the outcome in Florida, and its flaw is that it tends to assume that Mr. Romney’s advantages are transient when in fact they are more robust.

Moreover, even if Mr. Romney’s flaws cut quite deeply, Mr. Gingrich has an equal number of vulnerabilities. And the math so far suggests that a race that goes back-and-forth in public sentiment may still leave Mr. Romney with a considerable advantage in the delegate count.

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