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Washington Keeps Romney on Winning Track

With 77 percent of the vote counted in the Washington caucuses, Mr. Romney won about 36 percent of the straw-poll vote there. His total may vary slightly as additional votes trickle in, but it should remain somewhere in that range, and he has been declared the winner by The Associated Press.


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The 36 percent of the vote that Mr. Romney received in Washington is not all that much different than the 35 percent he got in Colorado on Feb. 7, which was considered a disastrous evening for him. Nor is it much different than the share of the popular vote — about 40 percent — that Mr. Romney has received in aggregate in all of the primaries and caucuses so far.

The difference in Washington was that no candidate was able to consolidate the other 64 percent of the vote, as Mr. Santorum did in Colorado. Instead, Mr. Santorum saw his vote share decline from to 24 percent from 42 percent.

Washington is a somewhat challenging state to characterize, but on the surface it is not that much different from Colorado. There are more evangelicals than you might think in the Republican electorates in both states. Colorado has a major city with liberal leanings and some wealthy suburbs, and a few midsize cities that lean more conservative, just as Washington does. Both states have some Mormon voters, who turn out in large numbers for the caucuses.

Colorado was undoubtedly Mr. Santorum’s most impressive win. It came in territory that most observers (myself included) had expected to be favorable to Mr. Romney, and therefore seemed to provide evidence that Mr. Romney’s grip on the nomination was tenuous. If he was capable of losing Colorado, perhaps there were not 20 or 25 solid Romney states, but no more than 10 or 15.

Can Mr. Romney win the nomination if he continues to get 35 or 40 percent of the vote in every state? Actually, several candidates have won the nomination with something like that figure. Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination with 38 percent of the popular vote in 1984, Jimmy Carter did so with 40 percent in 1976, as did Michael Dukakis with 42 percent in 1988.

The 1988 and 1976 races represent favorable precedents for Mr. Romney: Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Carter won their nominations well before the conventions in those years. Walter Mondale was in more danger in 1984, however, barely beating Gary Hart.

The Colorado result, along with Mr. Santorum’s win in Minnesota the same evening and his relatively strong showing in Michigan last week, had made it seem like we were on the Mondale-Hart trajectory, with Mr. Romney serving in the Mondale role as the establishment-backed candidate whom voters had little enthusiasm about, and Mr. Santorum as the insurgent like Mr. Hart.

The results in Washington, however — as well as those in Maine, where Mr. Santorum ran a distant third place behind Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul, and in Arizona, where he was closer to third place than first — are more in line with the 1976 or 1988 paths. In those years, there was a mediocre front-runner but one who nevertheless had a fairly decisive advantage over a gaggle of rivals.

To get back on the Gary Hart trajectory, it might not suffice for Mr. Santorum to win Ohio on Super Tuesday, or Ohio plus one or two southern states. He will also have to demonstrate that he is the main rival to Mr. Romney in caucus states like North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska, as Mr. Hart was to Mr. Mondale. Ideally, this would mean winning one or more of them outright, or failing that, finishing no worse than a strong second.

But there may not be much reason to be confident about such a showing. Whatever was in the water the day Republicans voted for Mr. Santorum in Minnesota and Colorado seems to have dissipated. Instead, the most recent caucuses have favored the candidates who were thought to have the strongest organizations: Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul.

It will be important to track Mr. Romney’s benchmarks on Tuesday — how many delegates, states and votes he wins. But it’s also important to look at how the remaining ones are divided among his rivals. If they are split fairly evenly between Mr. Santorum, Mr. Paul and Newt Gingrich, Mr. Romney could become the nominee by default. The Republican delegate rules are designed to assist a candidate in such a scenario and put him over the top to a majority — unless, perhaps, some other candidate can make a claim to having a stronger mandate from Republican voters, in which case Super Delegates and other unbound delegates could shift toward him.

Mr. Santorum is not able to make such a claim based on his recent results — and Mr. Paul and Mr. Gingrich certainly are not either. The race might remain notionally competitive if Mr. Romney endures some losses on Super Tuesday, especially in Ohio. Perhaps he will endure another “bad” loss somewhere along the way, whether in Illinois on March 20 or somewhere else.

But the fewer states that are still left to vote, and the fewer delegates that are still left to accumulate, the less downside such losses would present to him. Instead, they might be more like the periodic defeats that Barack Obama took in states like Pennsylvania in 2008, enough to generate some poor headlines for him but not enough to knock him off a winning trajectory.

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