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The Meaning of Michigan

Imagine that general elections were held, as presidential primaries are, one state at a time.

One week, it was Rhode Island’s turn to vote. The Democratic candidate, who had initially held a large lead in the polls there, slumped after unexpectedly losing Minnesota and Colorado to an upstart Republican opponent. But the Democrat rebounded, took advantage of his natural strengths in the state, and his base voters came through. Polls on election night suggested that the race was a tossup, but the Democrat ended up winning by 3 percentage points.

Pop quiz: Did the Democrat have a good night?

Not really. Surely he had a better night than if he had lost the state. But a Democrat who wins Rhode Island by only 3 points isn’t likely to win the election.

You probably see the analogy here. Substitute Mitt Romney’s name for “the Democrat,” Rick Santorum’s for the “upstart Republican opponent” and you get a very favorable interpretation for Mr. Santorum about what happened on Tuesday evening. But that’s not exactly where I’m going with this.

The point, instead, is that these sorts of scenarios are very easy to evaluate when you know exactly how the states line up, but harder in the case of a party primary. We know that Rhode Island is a very blue state. (Walter Mondale and George McGovern somehow managed to lose it for the Democrats, but it doesn’t happen often.) It’s blue enough, in fact, that merely coming close to losing it would be an awful sign for a Democrat; no attempt at spin could persuade you otherwise.

In presidential primaries, it’s much more challenging to rank the states from favorable to unfavorable for a candidate. Is Michigan Mr. Romney’s equivalent of Rhode Island? Or instead, a true tossup state on the order of Florida or Ohio, one where a win by any margin would be genuinely impressive?

And what about Arizona, for that matter? It went overlooked, but Mr. Romney crushed Mr. Santorum there by a 20-point margin.

But back to Michigan for a moment. It is a particularly challenging state to benchmark because it’s hard to know how much weight to give to the fact that Mr. Romney was born there, and that his father was a governor of the state. Remove those factors, and Michigan does not look like especially favorable terrain for him; it is working class and the western and northern portions of the state contain its share of religious conservatives.

One way to think about the question is to evaluate what a candidate’s state polls looked like as compared with national surveys. In this way, we can at least get a sense for which states are above- or below-average for a candidate.

The catch is that we will look at how a candidate polled in the state over the longer course of the election cycle. This deliberately de-emphasizes short-term factors related to how the campaign was conducted, as well as short-term swings in momentum.

In the chart below, I’ve plotted the share of the vote that Mr. Romney received in national polls from Aug. 15 onward (this date is chosen because it coincides with the entry of Rick Perry into the race) against his polls in Michigan.

On average over this period, Mr. Romney polled 9 points better in Michigan than he did in national polls conducted at the same time. In the chart, I’ve dubbed this calculation the Romney Voting Index, or R.V.I., a take-off the Partisan Voting Index, or P.V.I., developed by the Cook Political Report, which is a relative measure of how well Democrats and Republicans do in individual states and Congressional districts as compared to the nation as a whole.

In Michigan, the margin between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum was tight, to the point that Mr. Romney was briefly doing worse in Michigan polls than he was in national surveys. Over the long run, however, Michigan polled quite favorably for Mr. Romney. A loss by Mr. Romney there would have suggested that Mr. Santorum had taken a very deep bite out of his coalition. And a 3-point win is underwhelming — not quite at the level of a Democrat losing by 3 points in Rhode Island, but a poor sign for him other things being equal.

However, Mr. Romney won by a much more impressive margin in Arizona. That state also has a high R.V.I. — Mr. Romney has performed 7 points better in Arizona polls than in national polls since August. But winning there by 20 points leaves plenty enough slack to cover it.

The campaign will now shift toward less favorable terrain for Mr. Romney. In Ohio, for instance, he has usually polled somewhat worse than he did in national surveys conducted at the same time.

The same holds, but much more emphatically, in Georgia, another Super Tuesday state. There, Mr. Romney suffers from the combined problems of it being a state in the Deep South and the home state of Newt Gingrich.

However, if Mr. Romney will not benefit as much from the calendar, this development is favorable for him in one important way: precisely because these states are uphill battles for him, his risks are now weighted more toward the upside.

If Mr. Romney wins Ohio, for instance, a state that should be somewhat below average for him, that would provide a very strong suggestion that he has built a winning coalition in the Republican race.

If Mr. Romney loses Ohio, on the other hand, it would certainly revive questions about both his weakness in the industrial Midwest and his inability to close the deal with Republican voters. But after his wins in Michigan and Arizona, we might essentially revert to the status quo as it existed a few days ago, with Mr. Romney as a fairly weak front-runner, but a front-runner nonetheless. And in fact, the status quo is basically favorable to Mr. Romney. He leads in the delegate count, in the popular vote, in endorsements from elected officials, in the number of states won and in virtually every other conventional or unconventional measure of his standing in the Republican race.

He does not, to be sure, lead by all that much. But if Mr. Romney is fairly close to achieving a majority of delegates, and none of the other candidates are, he will probably win the nomination, and probably before the convention.

Momentum has had fairly weak and unpredictable effects so far in this race. There is the possibility that it will shift against Mr. Romney over the course of the next week.

But how would this manifest itself? It is unlikely to cause Mr. Romney to lose Massachusetts or Virginia, where he and Ron Paul are the only candidates on the ballot. There was one poll that showed a fairly close result in Vermont, but I have trouble believing that Mr. Santorum could win such a socially liberal state, or that Vermont will come to be considered essential to a Republican’s path to the nomination.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario for Mr. Romney is that his wins are limited to those three states — Massachusetts, Virginia and Vermont. He loses everything else, including the several caucus state to vote on Super Tuesday — as well as Washington, which holds its caucus on Saturday.

Such an outcome undoubtedly would be damaging to Mr. Romney, and would make his nomination less assured. But Mr. Romney’s Republican opponents may now have missed their best opportunity to deliver a knockout blow to him. Michigan, Arizona and Florida were interesting precisely because losses there would have been hard to excuse for Mr. Romney — clear demonstrations that he does not have a majority coalition. And yet, his advantage was not quite so formidable in these states that it was impossible to conceive of him losing.

I’m not sure that there will exist another such opportunity on the Republican calendar. Losing Illinois on Mar. 20, or perhaps Maryland on April 3, could damage Mr. Romney. But there has been little polling in these states, and losses there would probably not have the narrative consequences that a loss in Michigan, Arizona or Florida would have. Then there are states like California and New York, which have a lot of delegates and where losses would be hard to excuse — but they do not vote until late in the process, at which point momentum might be of limited value.

Mr. Romney could still lose the nomination, but his campaign is relatively well-equipped for a war of attrition, and would rather take that route than one where his candidacy seemed to be imploding and there was unambiguous evidence that he had been rejected by the Republican electorate.

His win in Michigan treads water at best; his win in Arizona was impressive. But Mr. Romney is doing just well enough (and not much better) to be on track for the Republican nomination.

His opponents might not have missed their last opportunity to upend him, but they may have missed their best one.

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