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In Illinois, Santorum’s Chance at Nomination Is Slipping Away

A quick glance at the map might tempt you into thinking that the Republican nomination is roughly an even battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, with Mr. Romney tending to prevail in the Northeast and the West, and Mr. Santorum in the Midwest and the South.

Do the math, however, and you’ll find that the nomination isn’t all that close. Mr. Romney hasn’t done that well in the South — but he also hasn’t been shut out there, winning Florida and its 50 winner-take-all delegates, and Virginia, where only Ron Paul was on the ballot alongside him. The Southern states that were poorer for Mr. Romney still tended to split their delegates in a relatively proportional way, and some of the anti-Romney vote there has gone to Newt Gingrich rather than Mr. Santorum.

In the Northeast and the West, on the other hand, Mr. Romney has often carried his states by clearer margins — like in Arizona, Washington or New Hampshire. Mr. Santorum narrowly beat Mr. Romney in Colorado, and Mr. Paul nearly did in Maine, but that has been about the extent of their incursion onto his turf.

Then, there are the delegates that few people pay attention to. From the five U.S. territories given a primary or caucus, including Puerto Rico on Sunday, Mr. Romney won 54 delegates, and Mr. Santorum won none. Mr. Romney has been endorsed by roughly 30 super delegates so far, and Mr. Santorum 2.

Mr. Santorum has been harmed by failures to qualify for the ballot or to post full-delegate slates in several states. And the Republican Party establishment, which would prefer that Mr. Romney be its nominee, has made decisions that work against Mr. Santorum in the event of delegate or vote-counting disputes.

For all those issues, Mr. Santorum might stand a fighting chance if he were truly dominating the delegate-rich Midwest. But he isn’t. So far, his wins there have been limited to states west of the Mississippi River (and Minnesota, where the Mississippi has its headwaters). But he lost Ohio and Michigan, albeit narrowly. Now, it looks like he might lose Illinois badly.

A week ago, Mr. Santorum seemed to have a decent shot in Illinois. He was down by just four points in The Chicago Tribune’s poll, which has had a strong track record — and that was before his wins in Alabama and Mississippi, which got him some favorable news coverage. The demographics of Illinois aren’t terrific for Mr. Santorum, but almost half of the Republican vote there is outside the Chicago metropolitan area, and downstate Illinois should be friendly terrain for him.

The polls have broken sharply against Mr. Santorum in Illinois, however. He trailed Mr. Romney by 14 and 15 points in two polls conducted over the weekend there and is behind by a similar margin in our forecast average, which gives him a 3 percent chance of winning the state.

Mr. Santorum has overperformed his polls in some previous states, but the biggest discrepancies have tended to be in states with larger numbers of evangelical voters than Illinois has. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of Illinois’s voters are likely to be evangelicals on Tuesday, more like in Michigan or Ohio than in Mississippi or Iowa.

I try to make a point of telling you when I think the polls (and therefore our forecast model) might be poorly calibrated. I don’t really see that here. Mr. Santorum has put fairly little energy into Illinois and (as usual) is losing the advertising war. This is a turnout battle state: the question has been whether Mr. Santorum could turn out enough downstate voters to offset Mr. Romney’s advantage in wealthy Chicago suburbs like Naperville, Northbrook and Glenview. But turnout battles are resource intensive: put little effort in, and you aren’t likely to get much out of them.

In fact, Mr. Santorum now looks like he’ll win no more than a third of the 54 delegates that are at stake on Tuesday. Illinois awards its delegates entirely by Congressional district — two to four at a time. If Mr. Santorum is losing the state by 10 or more points, he is unlikely to win any of the 12 Congressional districts that are divided between Chicago and its suburbs. And he has no chance at all of winning the 13th Congressional District, which is more favorable to him but where he failed to get enough signatures to get his delegates on the ballot.

That leaves only the downstate 12th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Congressional Districts, which contain a total of 17 delegates. Not all of these are guaranteed wins. The 16th and 17th Congressional Districts, in particular, could go to Mr. Romney if he is winning by double-digits statewide.

Say that Mr. Romney wins the 16th Congressional District, which includes some areas on the far outskirts of the Chicago metro area, but Mr. Romney holds the other four. That would make the delegate count for the night Romney 40, Santorum 14, and put Mr. Romney ahead by almost 300 delegates — 561 to 267 — in the national total.

That isn’t a close race, nor is it one that it is likely to require a brokered convention to resolve. If that is the count after Illinois votes, Mr. Romney would require only 46 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch a majority (he was won about 55 percent so far), and only 39 percent to clinch a plurality.

It is also possible, of course, that we won’t need to go through all 50 states to determine this — that Mr. Santorum will drop out. Whether to do so is up to him, but he has essentially no chance of winning the nomination without a major breakthrough that would produce some sustained momentum.

Illinois had appeared to offer Mr. Santorum a chance at a breakthrough. Instead, unless the polls are very wrong, it may represent a breakthrough of sorts for Mr. Romney – by far his biggest delegate grab and margin of victory in a Midwestern state so far.

If Mr. Romney wins Illinois by that margin, it will take the political equivalent of the Bartman ball to cost him the nomination.

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