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What’s at Stake in Alabama and Mississippi

It’s hard to say who is going to win in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday night. Polls in these states have a poor track record, and they project a close race anyway, although Rick Santorum is somewhat off the lead lap in Mississippi.

But if the confusing polling situation makes pre-election analysis more challenging, it ought to make analysis easier after the fact. Tuesday night’s contests are mostly about who wins — and not who clears some arbitrary bar based on pre-election expectations.

There are six possible permutations of the winners in these states, assuming that we regard victories in Alabama or Mississippi as being interchangeable. We will consider each possibility briefly down below.

Permutation #1: Mitt Romney Wins Both States

This is probably the most consequential outcome. Mr. Romney has yet to win a Southern state apart from Florida — and even there, his margin of victory came from South Florida, which is as much like the Northeast or California as the South. If Mr. Romney were able to notch victories in Alabama and Mississippi, states which have among the highest percentage of evangelical voters in the country, it would be the latest sign that Newt Gingrich and Mr. Santorum don’t really have a coherent path to victory.

Polls, in fact, suggest that Mr. Romney has some chance of pulling off the double win. In our polling-based forecasts, he trails Mr. Gingrich by less than a full percentage point in Alabama, and leads him by about the same margin in Mississippi.

How is Mr. Romney doing this? Actually, that’s no great secret. Our polling model projects him to win about a third of the vote in the two states — 32 percent in Alabama and 34 percent in Mississippi. Those numbers aren’t too far out of range from what he has accomplished in other Southern states. And you can win a contest with about a third of the vote — provided that the remaining opponents split the other two-thirds almost exactly evenly. If Mr. Romney wins one of these states, it will probably be with numbers like these:

Romney 33
Gingrich 32
Santorum 30
Paul 5

Of course, if Mr. Romney had the same third of the vote but either Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Santorum had consolidated the rest of the support, it could lead to what looked like a crushing defeat:

Gingrich 45
Romney 33
Santorum 17
Paul 5

So, in some ways, this would be a cheap win for Mr. Romney — less impressive than what he did in Ohio, for instance, or in Arizona or Florida.

Still, it would speak toward a very real advantage that he has. Mr. Santorum’s path toward victory would be at least a little less improbable if Mr. Gingrich were to drop out, or vice versa.

And if Mr. Romney won the two states — after a week in which in the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns have been playing down expectations and conceding that their path toward victory involved a brokered convention — Republican voters and elected officials could decide that it was time to wave the white flag for them and watch some March Madness.

Of course, that Mr. Romney is hoping to win with a relatively small fraction of the vote also speaks to how tenuous his path is. Particularly if support is shifting mostly between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum in these states, with Mr. Romney’s number holding steadier, he’ll be in trouble if either candidate gets an Election Day surge.

Indeed, there is some evidence that Mr. Romney has an upper bound on his support. His favorability ratings are quite a bit weaker than theirs in the two states, and his polling averages are slightly higher than where demographic models would peg him. If he misses his polling forecasts even slightly (getting 30 or 31 percent of the vote rather than 33 or 34 percent), it will become much harder for him to thread the needle.

Permutation #2: Newt Gingrich Wins Both States

The effects of a double Gingrich win are fairly obvious: they would keep him in the race and perhaps give him some momentum, probably to Mr. Romney’s ultimate benefit. Mr. Gingrich would probably target Louisiana next, which votes on March 24, and he might have a chance there. But it doesn’t seem that Mr. Gingrich is likely to threaten Mr. Romney in states like Illinois that are more important for Mr. Romney in maintaining a relatively smooth path to the nomination. Instead, Mr. Gingrich could pick up a few points of support from Mr. Santorum in these states, making Mr. Romney’s path even easier.

Perhaps if Mr. Gingrich won by blowout margins, he would come to be perceived (once again) as the major challenger to Mr. Romney, supplanting Mr. Santorum. However, after a poor Super Tuesday, even this wouldn’t do Mr. Gingrich much good — he is even further back in the delegate count than Mr. Santorum is, and he has shown little strength in caucus states or any other states outside of the South.

Permutation #3: Rick Santorum Wins Both States

This is the least likely permutation according to the polls, especially in Mississippi, where Mr. Santorum was in third place in all but one recent survey. Of course, as we’ve mentioned, the polls are more likely than usual to be wrong in these states.

But even if Mr. Santorum were to win both states, I don’t know that this would count as exceeding expectations. After his wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee last week, he was widely (and fairly, in my view) perceived as the favorite in Alabama and Mississippi as well.

The main benefit to Mr. Santorum, rather, would be in having the potential to knock Mr. Gingrich out of the race. Mr. Gingrich has vowed to remain in the race win or lose, but candidates often say that sort of thing especially before the voting takes place (recall Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and his “ticket to ride” out of New Hampshire).

Permutation #4: Romney and Gingrich Each Win a State

We could also have a split decision. This particular version of it (Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich each winning one state) would not really be much better for Mr. Santorum than the scenario where one of them sweeps. It might lead the contest to drag on a little longer than if Mr. Romney carried both — Illinois is only a week away, and the n
ews media usually look for excuses to string along the race. But without having some favorable momentum heading into Illinois, Mr. Santorum is an underdog. And with unfavorable momentum as would be produced by a double loss tonight, he might require some external event to intervene to give him a chance, like a major gaffe on Mr. Romney’s part.

Permutation #5: Romney and Santorum Each Win a State

This path, conversely, is more tolerable for Mr. Santorum, as it would shut Mr. Gingrich out and keep the contest more of a two-man race. Still, the maps that imply a miraculous Santorum comeback in the delegate count don’t have him coming all that close to losing Alabama or Mississippi, let alone actually dropping one of them. He would need to perform very well in Illinois.

Permutation #6: Santorum and Gingrich Each Win a State

I would hope that this outcome would not inspire discussion about a brokered convention — Mr. Romney has plenty of winning maps in which he carries neither Alabama nor Mississippi. And he is likely to have at least two victories Tuesday night — in the caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa, although Ron Paul could threaten him in the Aloha State.

Perhaps if Mr. Romney did lose Hawaii and came in a clear third in both Alabama and Mississippi, that could create some problems for him. But in general this is an evening — perhaps in contrast to Super Tuesday — where Mr. Romney’s risks are weighted to the upside, and he has more to gain than to lose.

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