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What Does Santorum’s Future Hold?

Although Rick Santorum was exceptionally unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination, his decision to suspend his campaign, which puts an effective end to the Republican nomination process, is obviously good news for Mitt Romney, who can now focus fully on his general election campaign against President Obama.

Mr. Santorum may have bought himself some goodwill with Republicans by clearing way for Mr. Romney, as polls increasingly revealed that most Republicans considered Mr. Romney’s nomination inevitable and many of them wanted to get the race over with. But is there any way for Mr. Santorum to cash in those chips?

Actually, that might be a challenge; it’s not clear where Mr. Santorum goes next.

Mr. Santorum might have some appeal to Mr. Romney as a vice presidential candidate, since he’s reasonably well vetted and comes from a swing state, Pennsylvania. But Mr. Santorum now has poor favorability ratings with the general public, with an average of 33 percent of voters viewing him favorably and 45 percent unfavorably in surveys conducted since March. As Mr. Romney also has such problems with his favorability ratings, he might be more inclined to pick a fresher face.

If Mr. Romney loses to Mr. Obama, then Mr. Santorum will be mentioned as a front-runner for the 2016 nomination. Mr. Santorum was always playing catch-up in this year’s campaign, having raised little money early on. With more cash, a deeper and more experienced staff, and more support from Republican Party officials, he could have more staying power. He’ll also have more experience under his belt.

It is questionable, however, whether Mr. Santorum can expect the competition in 2016 or 2020 to be as soft as it was this year, with big names like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and perhaps others looming on the horizon, and as the Republicans who were elected to office in the 2010 wave begin to mature as politicians. Whomever Mr. Romney selects as his vice presidential candidate will also have a good shot at future Republican nominations. Finishing second in a strong field of candidates, as John McCain did in the Republican race of 2000, may be an indication of future success, but it is less of a credential when the competition is middling and some of Mr. Santorum’s support came by virtue of being an “anti-Romney” candidate.

Mr. Santorum could also look to statewide office in Pennsylvania, but that might require a reasonably long wait. The incumbent governor there, Tom Corbett, is a Republican and is eligible for another term in 2014, so Mr. Santorum would either need to mount a primary challenge or hope that Mr. Corbett retires.

Of Pennsylvania’s two incumbent senators, one is a Democrat, Bob Casey, who resoundingly defeated Mr. Santorum in 2006 and who remains fairly popular. Because Mr. Casey is on the ballot again this year and it is too late for Mr. Santorum to challenge him, he would need to wait until 2018 for a rematch. Pennsylvania’s other incumbent senator, Pat Toomey, will be up for election in 2016. But Mr. Toomey is a Republican who is relatively young and who is too conservative to be vulnerable to a primary challenge.

Mr. Santorum is himself fairly young at 53, so he will have plenty of time to build up his brand name and evaluate his options. Still, it could easily be that the 2012 nomination campaign will prove to be the high-water mark of his political career.

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