One of the perverse elements in the news coverage of primaries and caucuses is that the better you are doing, the less attention it might get. As Mitt Romney has pulled ahead in the polls before the Arizona primary — he now seems headed for a double-digit victory there Tuesday — the focus is on Michigan, which has been much closer. Case in point: the database NewsLibrary.com retrieves 607 articles that contained the phrase “Michigan primary” over the past two weeks — but only 97 that contained the phrase “Arizona primary.”
Arizona will award almost as many delegates as Michigan, however — and Arizona’s are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. If Mr. Romney has a poor night in Michigan, losing the state and winning only five Congressional Districts there, he would nevertheless take away 39 delegates from the evening — provided that he wins Arizona — almost twice Rick Santorum’s total of 20 from Michigan.
And if the news media’s focus has shifted away from Arizona, many political observers once held that it might be more competitive than Michigan. I had never quite subscribed to this philosophy — Mr. Romney’s homestate advantage in Michigan may have been overrated, while factors like the large number of Mormon voters in Arizona may have been overlooked.
Arizona is, nevertheless, an important state — a longtime member of the Republican coalition that is steadily growing in its electoral vote count, but which Democrats might have some hope of putting in play in November. And, if Mr. Romney has some advantages there, they are not as clear-cut as in places like Nevada or New Hampshire. After Florida, it would be his most impressive win to date.
Mr. Romney is projected to win Arizona by 16 percentage points, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. That is a pretty safe margin; it translates into a 99 percent chance of his winning the state, according to the model.
Unlike Michigan, moreover, which has reverted to being virtually tied, Mr. Romney’s lead in the polls has continued to grow there. Mr. Romney may have been boosted by the endorsement of Gov. Jan Brewer, who remains popular with Republicans in the state and who announced her support for his candidacy on Sunday. He also has the endorsement of Arizona’s most recognizable politician, Senator John McCain.
Nor is there any reason to expect a surprise in the vote; perhaps half of the state has already voted, and Mr. Romney held a larger advantage among early voters in the polls than he does over all. In New Hampshire, famous for its late-deciders, I might have taken the 100-to-1 odds that our model gave to candidates like Ron Paul and Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. I probably wouldn’t take the 100-to-1 odds it offers for Mr. Santorum here. A Romney loss would raise grave questions about the accuracy of political polls (and our forecast model), not to mention the viability of his candidacy.
There are, however, a few things to watch in Arizona. We will briefly examine the state from the standpoint of the four candidates competing there.
FiveThirtyEight forecast (most likely outcome): 43 percent
High end of forecast range: 48 percent
Low end of forecast range: 35 percent
One question is whether Mr. Romney will win by a large enough margin that the networks will call the state for him as soon as the polls close. News organizations differ in how liberal they are about doing this, but generally that would imply that they expect him to win by at least 10 to 12 points once all votes are counted, based on the inferences they are making from exit polls and sample precincts.
Mr. Romney is more likely than not to achieve this threshold, according to the forecast. What that means is that he’d get a nice dose of good news at 9 p.m., at which point Michigan’s vote should still be a long way from being decided. (Most of Michigan’s polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern, although a few in the Upper Peninsula close at 9.)
That would allow Mr. Romney to declare it a successful night — and do so before most people go to bed — win or lose in Michigan. Obviously, Mr. Santorum will be able to make some competing claims, and if he wins Michigan, they may tend to prevail in the news media’s coverage. Nevertheless, this is not likely to be a night like Feb. 7, where Mr. Romney was losing all over the map.
Another question is whether Mr. Romney wins the state among non-Mormon voters, a group that gives him a built-in advantage of perhaps 9 points. It is not that Mormon votes count any less than others; politics is inherently a coalition-building process, and building a ragtag band of different constituencies is often a route to success. But Mormons support Mr. Romney in overwhelming numbers — far more than evangelical voters support Mr. Santorum, for instance — to a degree that is perhaps comparable only to African-American voters and their support for Democratic candidates. Nor are there many Mormons outside of this part of the country, and two of the states that contain their fair share — Nevada and Colorado — have already voted. So the non-Mormon vote total may have more predictive power when applied to future contests.
Finally, it is worth seeing what Mr. Romney’s margins are like among Hispanic-Americans. Mr. Romney performed well among Hispanics in Florida this year after having struggled with them in 2008 — but many Hispanics in Florida are Cuban or Puerto Rican, whereas they are predominately of Mexican ancestry in Arizona. Although the plurality of Hispanics are Democrats, there are enough Hispanic Republicans to influence the results in California and Texas, both of which have a large number of delegates and award them on a relatively proportional basis. And Mr. Romney’s performance among Hispanics could also tell us something about how he is likely to do in New Mexico, a state that is otherwise hard to characterize.
FiveThirtyEight forecast (most likely outcome): 27 percent
High end of forecast range: 35 percent
Low end of forecast range: 20 percent
Arizona’s somewhat libertarian-leaning politics are not the most natural fit for Mr. Santorum. But he did make some campaign appearances in the state. Nor can Mr. Santorum complain about Mr. Romney blasting him on the airwaves, as “super PAC” expenditures were quite modest in the state; he’ll have lost it fair-and-square.
We will not be able to say that Mr. Santorum has been completely shut out in the West even if he loses Arizona — he did win Colorado, although eastern Colorado, where his margins were the largest, looks a lot more like Kansas than the Mountain West. Still, a more competitive performance in Arizona would have allowed us to draw up clearer outcomes in which Mr. Santorum builds up a majority coalition nationwide, rather than more or less battling Mr. Romney to a draw.
Of course, if Mr. Santorum keeps the margin closer than polls indicate, that might be more promisingly for him. But there is also the chance that he could finish in third place — the 8 points separating him from Mr. Gingrich are less than Mr. Romney’s 16-point advantage.
FiveThirtyEight forecast (most likely outcome): 19 percent
High end of forecast range: 27 percent
Low end of forecast range: 12 percent
Mr. Gingrich’s numbers, in fact, have slightly rebounded in Arizona over the past week, which leaves open an interesting hypothetical: what if he devoted a fuller effort to the state? (He has visited it only sporadically.)
Mr. Gingrich may have been scared off by his disappointing showing in Florida — whose demographics are more similar to Arizona than most other states. But Arizona does contain its fair share of older voters, a group with which Mr. Gingrich has sometimes polled strongly. And it does not mind its eccentric politicians, like Ms. Brewer.
One problem with Mr. Gingrich’s current strategy — which seems focused on Super Tuesday states like Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee — is that he is mostly competing in territory where Mr. Santorum represents the biggest threat to him. If as we venture throughout the 50 states, Mr. Romney wins about half the delegates, and Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich split the other half, it is hard to see how either would win the nomination.
Instead, Mr. Gingrich would be more dangerous if he could compete in states that Mr. Romney would otherwise be expected to win. Arizona would have qualified as one of his better alternatives by that measure. Sure, Arizona would have been a long shot given Mr. Gingrich’s slide in the national polls — but all of his possible paths to the nomination are long shots at this point.
FiveThirtyEight forecast (most likely outcome): 10 percent
High end of forecast range: 15 percent
Low end of forecast range: 6 percent
Mr. Paul has devoted even less attention to Arizona, a state which has its libertarian and Tea Party leanings, but whose winner-take-all rules would do his delegate-maximization strategy no good unless he won it outright. He might underperform like he did in Florida, another state that he essentially ignored.