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One Test Left for Romney: The Midwest

Saturday’s victory in the Nevada caucuses gives Mitt Romney double-digit wins in three of the four major regions of the country: the Northeast (New Hampshire), the West (Nevada) and the South (Florida).

Yes, Mr. Romney lost one Southern state, South Carolina, which is arguably more representative of the region than Florida. But relatively few states in the South are competitive in the general election. Florida, where Mr. Romney already won, and Virginia, where he and Ron Paul are the only candidates on the ballot and where the wealthy demographics favor him, are the two most important exceptions.

Instead, if Mr. Romney loses the nomination, it is likely to be because of the one region that has yet to give him a victory: the Midwest.

A contiguous block of eight swing states containing 95 electoral votes — Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — determine the winners and losers in most presidential elections. When at least six or seven of these states are added to the state bases of the Democratic or Republican candidate, he or she is all but guaranteed a victory. (Barack Obama won seven of them in 2008). Only when they are about evenly divided, as in 2000 or 2004, do swing states in other parts of the country — like Nevada or New Hampshire or Florida — tend to make much difference.

Mr. Romney lost Iowa to Rick Santorum, albeit by about the narrowest possible margin. He will have two more opportunities to win a Midwestern state on Tuesday, when Minnesota has its caucuses and Missouri holds a primary. (The Missouri primary does not matter for delegate selection: the state will hold a separate caucus for that purpose in March.)

Mr. Romney could be vulnerable in both states. A survey released on Sunday by Public Policy Polling, which has had fairly accurate results so far in the primary season, had Minnesota as a toss-up between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul not far behind.

And in Missouri, where Mr. Gingrich is not on the ballot for the “beauty contest” primary, it had Mr. Santorum ahead of Mr. Romney, 45 percent to 34 percent.

Imagine that Mr. Romney were to lose both states. That would make him zero for three in the nation’s most important swing region. It would raise questions about his performance in Ohio, probably the most important state to vote on “Super Tuesday,” March 6. Polling there also shows a competitive race.

Michigan, where Mr. Romney was born and which will vote on Feb. 28, is a safer bet for him, but he is not completely out of the woods there. The state has a large working-class population, and Mr. Romney has sometimes struggled with those voters even when he has performed well otherwise. In Nevada, for instance, Mr. Romney actually lost voters who make less than $30,000 a year, despite winning about half of the vote over all.

Imagine, moreover, that Mr. Santorum wins both Minnesota and Missouri. That could revive his campaign, especially given that he also took Iowa.

Mr. Santorum is, in many ways, a more dangerous opponent for Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich at this point. He has run a more disciplined campaign than the former House speaker, has less personal baggage and is less disliked by party leaders.

Mr. Santorum can also make a credible claim to challenging Mr. Romney on electability. Mr. Santorum’s current unfavorable rating among all voters is 11 points lower than Mr. Romney’s, 36 percent versus 47 percent. Their favorable ratings are roughly equal: 30 percent for Mr. Santorum to 29 percent for Mr. Romney.

Mr. Santorum’s conservative positions on social issues might not make him an ideal fit with certain types of independent voters. States that are moderate to -liberal on social policy, like Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado, could be tougher for Republicans to win if Mr. Santorum is their nominee.

But those concerns might be outweighed if Mr. Santorum shows strength in the Midwest — and Mr. Romney shows weakness. More than the other candidates, Mr. Santorum has made an effort to appeal to working-class voters in the recent debates and to show a more compassionate side of conservatism when it comes to fiscal policy.

This is not a new persona. Mr. Santorum’s voting record in the Senate was less conservative than you might think on fiscal issues, allowing him to win re-election in Pennsylvania in 2000, although he lost badly there in 2006.

The conventional wisdom suggests that neither Mr. Santorum nor Mr. Gingrich offers much of a challenge to Mr. Romney. The betting market Intrade, a good objective barometer of conventional wisdom, gives Mr. Santorum a 3 percent chance of becoming the Republican nominee, slightly less than Mr. Gingrich at 4 percent.

With Mr. Santorum, however, you can at least draw up a coherent path to victory, one that runs through the Midwest. There is a Midwestern state left to vote at virtually every turn of the nomination calendar. After Michigan on Feb. 28 and Ohio on Super Tuesday comes Missouri (again) on March 17, when it holds its caucuses, then Illinois on March 20, Wisconsin on April 3 and Pennsylvania on April 24. (A big disadvantage for Mr. Santorum: He did not qualify for the ballot in Indiana, which votes on May 8.)

Mr. Santorum would eventually need to expand his coalition beyond the region — such as to the socially conservative states of the South. But victories for him in Minnesota or Missouri — especially if he wins both — would at once raise new concerns about Mr. Romney’s appeal to working-class voters and make Mr. Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina appear to be a one-off event that is quickly receding in the rear-view mirror.

But if Mr. Gingrich continues to be Mr. Romney’s main rival, it feels like we know how the script will be written.

Mr. Gingrich might have a puncher’s chance of landing a blow and winning any given state, provided that Mr. Romney does not have too many demographic advantages. But given his campaign’s lack of cash, discipline, organization and support from party leaders, Mr. Gingrich will have difficulty prevailing against Mr. Romney in a 50-state bout, especially now that Mr. Gingrich has fallen behind Mr. Romney in the delegate count and in national polls. The bigger question is whether Mr. Romney wins by knockout or on the delegate scorecard.

To be clear, the overwhelming majority of paths to the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., involve a victory for Mr. Romney. That Mr. Santorum could win a couple of states and make things interesting for some time is much more likely than his actually winning the nomination.

But until Mr. Romney wins in the Midwest, or at least until he is a clear favorite in the polls there outside of his native Michigan, it is hard to consider his nomination as a forgone conclusion.

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