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Romney’s Michigan Win Stands as Climactic Moment in Campaign

After Mitt Romney’s sweep of Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday, we’re seeing an increasing number of news analyses declaring that the Republican race effectively over.

I’m not here to dispute that conclusion, which I largely share and have for some time now. After having won almost all delegates in Tuesday’s primaries, Mr. Romney has gone from very likely to win the majority of delegates to nearly certain to do so. For him to lose now — or even have to go to a brokered convention — would probably require some sort of disqualifying event, an unexpected scandal from his past.

Nevertheless, I’m interested in the question of what historians will see as the turning point when they look back on the 2012 Republican race. This is intended as a purely retrospective exercise, not a predictive one, making no apology for taking advantage of the hindsight we now have.

What’s interesting is that you can make the case for quite a few different dates. The obvious ones are probably Tuesday night’s results, the Illinois primary, the Michigan and Arizona primaries and the Florida primary. Super Tuesday is a credible answer, in that Mr. Romney won far more delegates from the evening than his opponents. A more audacious claim would be that Mr. Romney won the race in Iowa or even before Iowa, in the early “invisible primary” phase of the campaign, but I don’t think that squares very well with the volatility we saw after that point.

Other people might point toward dates that have yet to occur: for instance, if Mr. Romney wins Rick Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania along with the other northeastern states on April 24, that may be seen as the critical moment. And an extremely literal view would be that Mr. Romney will not clinch the nomination until he receives an outright majority of delegates — something which cannot happen mathematically until May.

To some extent, the answer depends on just how certain you’d need to be to consider Mr. Romney’s nomination a cinch. If an 80 or 90 percent certainty is your standard, you might pick one of the earlier dates. If you want 99.9 percent certainty, we still probably aren’t there yet.

Nevertheless, in my view, the consensus of evidence seems to point toward one of these dates in particular: Michigan (and Arizona) on Feb. 28.

One piece of evidence for this is news media coverage. In an article in March, I tracked which days a story about the Republican campaign had led political news coverage (as measured by the lead story on the Web site Memeorandum) and which days something else had dominated the news. I’ve now updated that analysis through Tuesday, April 3.

This chart paints a relatively clear answer. From Iowa on Jan. 3 to Michigan on Feb. 28, a story about the Republican nomination almost always led the political news cycle, topping the coverage 84 percent of the time. Since Michigan, the Republican nomination usually has not been the main story, leading the coverage only 23 percent of the time.

There has been some real news in the period since Michigan — for instance, the arguments about Barack Obama’s health care bill before the Supreme Court. But other stories have had more questionable news value — like Rush Limbaugh’s controversial remarks toward Sandra Fluke — and they, too, led political news coverage for days at a time. That is less likely to have been true prior to Michigan, when the Republican nomination was more suspenseful.

Another relatively useful metric is the date on which a candidate secured a lead in national polls that he never relinquished. This method provides a fairly intuitive answer when applied to past elections — for instance, it would suggest that John Kerry won the Democratic nomination in 2004 after Iowa, after which he never really looked back, or that Michael Dukakis won the 1988 Democratic nomination shortly after Super Tuesday.

Michigan — actually, a few days before Michigan — again emerges as the key turning point by this measure. Mr. Romney has led his rivals in the Gallup national tracking poll every day since Feb. 25.

That Feb. 25 date stands out for another reason: it was the first time in the tracking poll that the majority of Gallup’s interviews were inclusive of the Feb. 22 Republican debate in Arizona. The final margin in Michigan was close enough — just three percentage points in Mr. Romney’s favor — to suggest that the debate may have swung the difference.

Mr. Romney has had more stylish debate performances than he had on Feb. 22, but he gained significantly from Mr. Santorum’s weak showing. In particular, the sequence where Mr. Romney turned one of Mr. Santorum’s attacks on his health care bill around to his advantage, instead attacking Mr. Santorum on his endorsement of Arlen Specter, stood out as a key moment:


The betting market Intrade has gotten some things wrong this year, but it correctly perceived this to be a pivot point in the campaign. Before the debate, Mr. Santorum’s chances of winning the Republican nomination were attributed to be 13 percent by the bettors there. Immediately after the debate, the bettors halved his odds to 6 percent.

Yes, you can look at Michigan as representing just 16 of the 646 delegates that Mr. Romney now has. But it voted at an early enough stage of the race that Mr. Romney’s lead in delegates was not all that large and the delegate math did not matter all that much. Mr. Santorum would have had plenty of time to make up ground if he had won Michigan and changed the momentum of the race.

Had Mr. Romney lost Michigan, perhaps he would have lost Ohio on Super Tuesday and accumulated significantly fewer delegates on the evening. Had he lost Ohio, perhaps he would have lost Illinois. Had he lost Illinois, he might have lost Wisconsin. Who knows — perhaps you would be reading an article about when Rick Santorum had clinched the Republican nomination. Or perhaps a late-entrant candidate would have jumped in. These things follow a path-dependent course. I thought at the time (and still think) that one could make a strong case for Mr. Romney’s vulnerability until he secured Michigan.

Since then, the Republican race has followed a more predictable-seeming course. The Michigan vic
tory allowed Mr. Romney to turn the race into a war of attrition — one he was prepared to win because of his increasing lead in delegates, his support from the Republican party establishment, his substantial advantage in fund-raising and his more experienced campaign staff. It was the climactic moment of the campaign, and it has been all downhill for his opponents ever since.

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