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G.O.P. Race Has Hallmarks of Prolonged Battle

Whatever your perspective on how likely Mitt Romney was to lose the Republican nomination race before Tuesday evening, it should be acknowledged that he had about the worst results conceivable.

In Minnesota, a state that Mr. Romney carried easily in 2008, he has so far failed to win a single county — and got just 17 percent of the vote. That put him 27 points behind Rick Santorum, and 10 points behind Ron Paul, who finished second.

Missouri is a less important result since its beauty contest primary did not count for delegate selection and since turnout was understandably low there. But Mr. Romney lost all 114 counties in Missouri — and the state as a whole by 30 points, far more than polls projected.

Then there was Colorado, a state that has reasonably similar demographics to Nevada, which Mr. Romney carried easily on Saturday. Colorado has somewhat fewer Mormon voters than Nevada, which hurts Mr. Romney — but it has somewhat more wealthy ones, which favors him. The betting market Intrade gave Mr. Romney about a 97 percent chance of winning Colorado entering the evening. But he lost the state by five¬† points to Mr. Santorum.

What’s more, the victor in all three states was Mr. Santorum, who is probably much more dangerous to Mr. Romney than Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich had an awful evening, finishing a distant third in Colorado and last in Minnesota. But that may only work against Mr. Romney in the end.

Mr. Romney clearly has a lot of advantages in the nomination race, and Mr. Santorum will need to scale his campaign up to the national level, something he had failed to do successfully after Iowa.

However, I would advise our readers to be good Bayesian thinkers and consider how easily Wednesday night’s evidence fits in to the perspective they had on the race going into Tuesday evening.

After Florida, I proposed five paths forward for the Republican nomination. Most of these paths resulted in Mr. Romney’s nomination. But some implied a much longer and more difficult race, and some put him at a tangible risk of defeat.

The evidence from Tuesday night was much more consistent with those scenarios, and much less so with those in which Mr. Romney wraps up the nomination easily.

Mr. Romney has had deep problems so far with the Republican base, going one-for-four in caucus states where turnout is dominated by highly conservative voters. Mr. Romney is zero-for-three so far in the Midwest, a region that is often decisive in the general election. He had tepid support among major blocks of Republican voters like evangelicals and Tea Party supporters, those voters making under $50,000 per year, and those in rural areas. Instead, much of his support has come from the wealthy areas that Charles Murray calls Super ZIPs — few of which are in swing states in the general election.

Meanwhile, polls show that a large number of Republicans have tepid enthusiasm for their field. And this has been reflected in the turnout so far, which is down about 10 percent from 2008 among Republican registrants and identifiers.

These are not the hallmarks of a race with a dominant candidate. Nor, even, of a race with a candidate like John Kerry, the best of a somewhat weak lot of Democrats in 2004, but one whom the party settled upon fairly quickly.

Instead, this race bears more of a resemblance to something like the 1984 Democratic contest or the 1976 Republican race. There was a favorite in each of those contests — Walter Mondale in 1984 and Gerald Ford in 1976 — and they were ahead in the delegate count more or less from start to finish.

But both contests progressed through all 50 states and were not that far from going to the convention. A few more missteps for Mr. Mondale or Mr. Ford, and the outcome might have been different.

The most generous interpretation of Tuesday night’s results is that Mr. Romney’s campaign failed to make much of an effort in the contests. He did not make many personal appearances in the states, nor did he run a significant amount of advertising. And his campaign worked to diminish expectations in the day or two before the voting — a practice that can annoy voters who are undecided in the race if they feel as if they are being told their vote doesn’t matter.

Why Mr. Romney’s campaign made these decisions is hard to say. One of the advantages of having a resource-rich campaign, as Mr. Romney does, is precisely that you are able to leave less to chance. Mr. Romney would have had the luxury of running commercials in Colorado or Minnesota, or of establishing a set of field offices in those states. Instead, his strategy was complacent. He gambled and paid the price, as Hillary Rodham Clinton did in the caucus states in 2008.

Fortunately for Mr. Romney, none of his rivals are in the same ballpark as Mrs. Clinton’s opponent, Barack Obama, as measured by metrics like fund-raising, organizational strength or oratorical skill. But Mr. Romney is not a strong enough candidate that he can afford more nights as bad as Tuesday.

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