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Live Coverage: Alabama and Mississippi Primaries

The race for the Republican presidential nomination arrived today in Alabama and Mississippi, where tight three-way contests could tip in favor of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. We’ll be bringing you exit poll results, data-driven observations, historical context and the final electoral verdicts in both states.

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11:36 P.M. Closing Out and Looking Ahead to Illinois

Rick Santroum had a good night, beating polls in both Mississippi and Alabama and carrying both states.

I’m not sure if it qualifies as a great night, however. Mr. Santorum’s advantage in the delegate count should be relatively modest: the Associated Press has called 22 delegates for him between the two states so far, versus 18 for Mitt Romney and 17 for Newt Gingrich. A number of delegates have yet to be decided in these states, but both divide their delegates in a relatively proportional way. And if Mr. Romney wins the caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa, he could potentially take more delegates overall from the evening.

Moreover, these were the sort of states that Mr. Romney was “supposed” to lose based on their demographics. Although the polls overestimated Mr. Romney’s standing, projections based on demographic models did reasonably well.

Mr. Romney will not have such excuses, however, if he loses Illinois, which votes a week from today. It’s the only contest that evening and Mr. Romney is thought to be the favorite there, although polls and my demographic model show a fairly tight race.

Mr. Romney will have a significant lead in delegates even if he loses Illinois. But a loss there would be more characteristic of those scenarios where he falls short of a delegate majority and needs help from super delegates and other unpledged delegates to win the nomination.

The bar for Mr. Santorum to actually overtake Mr. Romney in delegates is much higher. Illinois would be a first step toward a more competitive path, but hardly a sufficient one. Still, it might be Mr. Santorum’s best remaining opportunity to shift the overall course of the race.

We are closing out our blogging for the evening, but you might find me posting thoughts on the Hawaii caucuses later this evening on Twitter.

Nate Silver

11:06 P.M. Gingrich Loses “Must Wins”

Newt Gingrich’s spokesman R.C. Hammond called both Alabama and Mississippi “must wins” for his candidate. Mr. Gingrich lost both states to Rick Santorum, instead.

More recently, Mr. Gingrich vowed to remain in the race win or lose Alabama and Mississippi.

Those sort of declarations do not always hold up once a candidate examines his situation more fully. After Iowa, Rick Perry vowed to press on, as Jon M. Hunstman Jr. did after New Hampshire. But both candidates quit the race prior to South Carolina.

Of course, Mr. Gingrich might not have the same incentives as those two. He has burned his share of his bridges with the Republican establishment and may have less opportunity cost by continuing his campaign in an effort to win free news media coverage — even if he has essentially zero chance of being the nominee.

If Mr. Gingrich remains in the race, he might hope to make a play in Louisiana, which votes on March 24. A recent poll there put him slightly behind both Mr. Santorum and Mitt Romney.

Nate Silver

11:06 P.M. There’s Still Hawaii

On the East Coast, all but the most devoted politicos will likely be asleep before results start coming in from Hawaii, which is holding its first ever Republican caucus today. Polls in the state close at 2 A.M. Eastern.

Although it is nominally a caucus, the vote in Hawaii resembles a primary more than the time-intensive ritual that takes place in Iowa. Any resident in the state at least 18-years-old need simply to show up at their polling place, fill out a Hawaii Republican Party card and cast their ballot.

The four major candidates have not campaigned in Hawaii, but three of them, all except Newt Gingrich, have sent surrogates to the state. Matt Romney, Elizabeth Santorum and Ronnie Paul — a son, daughter and son, respectively, of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — were the offspring with the hardship assignment of traveling to Hawaii.

Seventeen of state’s 20 delegates to the Republican National Convention are awarded proportionally based on today’s vote. Three party leaders will attend the convention as unpledged delegates

It’s difficult to project who might win the state. The last poll of Republican voters in Hawaii was Public Policy Polling’s October survey, and it gave Herman Cain a 36 percent to 24 percent lead over Mr. Romney. But Hawaii is a solid blue state when voting for president in general elections, and blue states have tended to go to Mr. Romney so far.

Micah Cohen

10:34 P.M. No Love for Romney in Talladega

Mitt Romney went to the Daytona 500 this year in the hopes of appealing to Nascar fans. This produced an awkward statement or two, but at least he was making the effort.

There are plenty of race tracks all throughout the South, of course. One of the most famous is the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala., whose long straightaways encourage aggressive racing and lead to their share of accidents.

But Mr. Romney does not seem to have many fans there. With all but one of Talladega County’s precincts reporting, he has just 25 percent of the vote, well behind both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

Nate Silver

10:24 P.M. Demographic Projections Beat Polls in Miss.

We mentioned earlier that polls are having a rough night in Mississippi. They projected Mitt Romney to win 34 percent of the vote there and several gave him the lead. But with most of the vote counted, he has 30 percent so far instead and is running in third place. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum is running significantly ahead of his polls.

The demographic projections put out by Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics look almost perfect in Mississippi, however — they had Mr. Romney with 31 percent of the vote there, within a point of his actual figure.

Both polls and Mr. Trende’s demographic projections put Mr. Romney at 32 percent of the vote in Alabama, where he has 28 percent of the vote so far.

Nate Silver

10:09 P.M. A Quick Look Ahead at Illinois

With Rick Santorum holding the lead so far in both Alabama and Mississippi tonight, Illinois, which votes a week from today, is likely to take on added importance.

The state is often assumed to be in Mitt Romney’s column since it is a high-population state that looks something like Ohio and Michigan.

But Ohio and Michigan were very close, and Illinois looks like it could be close as well. The most recent poll there, from the Chicago Tribune, gave Mr. Romney just a 4 point lead over Mr. Santorum.

One reason the state could be close is because the Chicago suburbs, which were once among the most reliably Republican regions in the country, have shifted to being more Democratic in recent years. And there are very few Republicans in Chicago itself.

So in the context of a Republican primary, the vote tilts pretty heavily downstate, which is more rural and more conservative — in some places even verging on being Southern. Barack Obama actually lost most counties downstate in 2008, despite carrying the state as a whole by 25 points.

Mr. Romney’s advertising advantages could still be important in Illinois — an edge that might not be fully priced into the polls. But especially if Mr. Santorum gets some momentum out of tonight, we should have a real race on our hands.

Nate Silver

10:05 P.M. Similar Patterns in Alabama and Mississippi

We pointed out that Mitt Romney’s narrow lead in Jefferson County, Ala., was a worrying sign for the Romney campaign because the county’s demographics are more favorable to Mr. Romney than most other counties in the state.

The same can be said of Rankin County in Mississippi, a suburban region southeast of Jackson. With over three-quarters of the county’s precincts reporting, Mr. Romney is leading Newt Gingrich by 1 percentage point and Mr. Santorum by 5. But — like Jefferson County in Alabama — Rankin is among Mississipi’s wealthiest, its G.O.P. voters among the state’s most moderate on social issues.

Mr. Romney would have hoped to run up large margins among Rankin’s suburban voters. Mr. Romney could still pull off a win in Mississippi largely because he is winning Hinds County, which includes the City of Jackson and is adjacent to Rankin, by a significant margin.

Micah Cohen

9:44 P.M. Mississippi Polls Having Rough Night So Far

Rick Santorum holds a small lead in Mississippi with about 40 percent of the vote in; he’s won 33 percent of the votes there so far.

That’s quite a bit better than Mr. Santorum was running in pre-election surveys; our projection from the polls had him winning 26 percent of the vote there instead. And one poll conducted over the weekend, from American Research Group, had him with just 22 percent of the vote.

This is not the first time that polls would have gone wrong in the Deep South, which is why we warned you to take polls and projections based upon them with a grain of salt.

Still, this is a large enough miss — and Mr. Santorum is also over-performing his polls in Alabama — that we might want to ask questions about whether the surveys are failing to count some of his vote, such as by not calling cellphones.

Nate Silver

9:41 P.M. In Alabama, Somewhat Troubling Sign for Romney

There are still a lot of votes to be counted in Alabama, and reading early returns can be no more accurate than reading tea leaves, but the closeness of the vote so far in Jefferson County bodes ill for Mitt Romne

Currently, Jefferson County shows a close three-way race with Mr. Romney in front, followed by Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. However, Republican voters in Jefferson County mostly come from Birmingham suburbs, and tend to be more affluent and better educated than G.O.P. voters in more rural parts of Alabama, just the sort of voter Mr. Romney has done well with in preceding states.

Unless voting patterns in Alabama show a marked shift from states that have voted already (which is possible), Mr. Romney would likely have to win counties like Jefferson by significant margins in order to offset deficits in more rural counties and win the state.

Micah Cohen

9:22 P.M. Few Geographic Patterns in Miss. Vote

Another reason that it’s likely to be a long night in Mississippi: we don’t seem to be getting very many hints about the eventual outcome from the geography of the state.

Here were the county leaders in Mississippi as of about 9:15 p.m., when 12 percent of precincts had reported.

Rick Santorum’s red color, Mitt Romney’s blue and Newt Gingrich’s orange seem to be distributed almost randomly on that map.

We’ll still be looking for patterns, of course, as more votes come in. But this doesn’t seem like the kind of case that we had last week in Ohio, when there was a fairly crisp urban-rural split that was apparent early on.

Nate Silver

9:12 P.M. Evidence of Irrationality at Intrade?

The betting market Intrade once had a reputation for being somewhat underconfident, exaggerating the probability of low-likelihood events. But recently, it has tended toward irrational exuberance instead.

Just after polls closed in Mississippi, the market had Mitt Romney with in excess of a 90 percent chance of winning there, even though no votes had been counted, pre-election polls had shown an essentially tied race and exit polls there had given him only a small edge, leading by 2 points against Rick Santorum and 3 points against Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Santorum had a slightly larger lead in the Alabama exit polls — but not enough to justify the market’s confidence that he would win the state, where his probability hit as high as 93 percent before any votes had been counted. (And Mr. Santorum had trailed slightly in pre-election polls of Alabama.)

Prediction markets have a lot of advantages when considering how the momentum might shift in a race — for instance, they can consider demographic data, or the edge that a candidate might have in advertising, in addition to the polls. They correctly anticipated that Michigan would swing toward Mitt Romney, for instance, long before polls did.

The precise moment on election night when exit polls are available but there is little other information represents a simpler problem to solve, and one with more objectively correct answers. You could figure out what the standard error was in an exit poll and come up with some reasonably well-calibrated predictions from that alone — perhaps tilting things slightly toward the candidate who was ahead in pre-election surveys.

The sort of prices we were seeing for Mr. Romney in Mississippi and Mr. Santorum in Alabama earlier in the night just did not seem to be doing a good job of that, vastly overestimating how accurate early-stage exit polls are and how often a 2-point lead in a three-way race will hold up.

Both predictions may turn out to be right — but cases like these are a sign that the market is not processing information in a sophisticated way.

Nate Silver

8:41 P.M. Mississippi Vote Count Off To Slow Start

Some 39 minutes after polls closed there, just 1 of Mississippi’s 1,889 precincts had reported results. (Mitt Romney led with 17 of the 27 votes in the first precinct.)

At a pace of 1 precinct per 39 minutes, Mississippi’s vote would be completely reported by 3:51 a.m. … on Thursday, May 3.

Nate Silver

8:35 P.M. Why Alabama and Mississippi May Disagree

Alabama and Mississippi are neighbors and so share many characteristics, but that doesn’t mean that their preferences in Republican presidential nominees will match.

Preliminary exit poll results show that — compared with Alabama — the Mississippi electorate has a marginally higher share of “very conservative” voters and a marginally higher share of born-again and evangelical Christian voters. Both groups have shown a reluctance to support Mr. Romney, yet he seems to be more competitive in Mississippi than he is in Alabama.

In fact, on demographic questions, the early exit poll results in Mississippi are remarkably similar to those in Alabama. So what accounts for the apparent disagreement?

One of the only significant discrepancies in the exit polls is in party affiliation. In Alabama, 28 percent of voters described themselves as “independent or other.” In Mississippi, 17 percent chose that category.

Of course, all this data is preliminary, and in the end, the states may come to agree on their preferred nominee.

Micah Cohen

8:28 P.M. Romney’s Early Risers and Exit Polls

One thing we’ve seen in a couple of states this year — in Mississippi tonight and in Ohio last week, for instance — is for exit polls to become less favorable
for Mitt Romney, and more favorable for Rick Santorum, as additional waves of data are released.

In Mississippi, for instance, the latest exit poll data has Mr. Romney at 33 percent, Mr. Santorum at 31 percent, and Newt Gingrich at 30 percent. That differs from the exit polls published immediately after polls closed, which were based on surveys conducted relatively early in the day. Those had shown a somewhat larger edge for Mr. Romney; he had 35 percent of the vote to Mr. Gingrich’s 30 percent and Mr. Santorum’s 29 percent.

Candidates who do well among older voters, and other types of demographics that turn out early like white-collar workers, are sometimes going to have their standing exaggerated by early waves of exit poll data. These sorts of demographics are good ones for Mr. Romney this year, whereas Mr. Santorum’s supporters are younger and more blue-collar.

Mr. Santorum has already outperformed his exit polls in one state this year: Iowa, where the polls as first published by the networks had him in third place, though he eventually (though very narrowly) won the state. That case is a little different, however — Iowa’s poll was conducted as voters are on their way into the caucus sites rather than their way out, and is more properly termed an entrance poll.

Nate Silver

8:07 P.M. Romney Leads Among Evangelicals in Miss. Exit Poll

How could Mitt Romney win Mississippi when 80 percent of the turnout there consists of evangelical voters?

This one has a simple answer: win those evangelical voters.

Exit polls had Mr. Romney taking 35 percent of the evangelical vote in Mississippi, with Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum each at 31 percent.

He was doing somewhat worse with them in Alabama, however, where he had 27 percent of the evangelical vote in the exit polls.

Nate Silver

7:58 P.M. Ala., Miss. More Female-Leaning Than 2008

Republican primary electorates typically have more men than women turning out, with men typically making up between about 51 percent and 57 percent of the electorate, depending on the state. That held in both Alabama and Mississippi in 2008, when 53 percent of the turnout was male.

Exit polls this year, however, show a 50/50 male-female split exactly in both Alabama and Mississippi. That could help Mitt Romney at the margin, since he tends to run more strongly with women than men.

Nate Silver

7:47 P.M. Mississippi Vote Count Could Be Slow

Southern states have a reputation for counting their vote slowly. The reputation is not always fair: Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Oklahoma all tallied their votes reasonably quickly on Super Tuesday, for instance.

But things may be a bit slower in Mississippi. In the 2008 primary there, only about a third of the vote was counted by 9 p.m., an hour after polls closed, and only about half was counted by 10 p.m. The rest of the vote then trickled in slowly over the course of the evening; just over 80 percent had been counted by midnight.

Alabama was a bit better in 2008: two-thirds of its votes were counted by 9 p.m., and about 80 percent by 10 p.m., although some rural precincts tricked in slowly.

Nate Silver

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