One Test Left for Romney: The Midwest
Saturday’s victory in the Nevada caucuses gives Mitt Romney double-digit wins in three of the four major regions of the country: the Northeast (New Hampshire), the West (Nevada) and the South (Florida).
Yes, Mr. Romney lost one Southern state, South Carolina, which is arguably more representative of the region than Florida. But relatively few states in the South are competitive in the general election. Florida, where Mr. Romney already won, and Virginia, where he and Ron Paul are the only candidates on the ballot and where the wealthy demographics favor him, are the two most important exceptions.
Instead, if Mr. Romney loses the nomination, it is likely to be because of the one region that has yet to give him a victory: the Midwest.
A contiguous block of eight swing states containing 95 electoral votes — Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — determine the winners and losers in most presidential elections. When at least six or seven of these states are added to the state bases of the Democratic or Republican candidate, he or she is all but guaranteed a victory. (Barack Obama won seven of them in 2008). Only when they are about evenly divided, as in 2000 or 2004, do swing states in other parts of the country — like Nevada or New Hampshire or Florida — tend to make much difference.
Mr. Romney lost Iowa to Rick Santorum, albeit by about the narrowest possible margin. He will have two more opportunities to win a Midwestern state on Tuesday, when Minnesota has its caucuses and Missouri holds a primary. (The Missouri primary does not matter for delegate selection: the state will hold a separate caucus for that purpose in March.)
Mr. Romney could be vulnerable in both states. A survey released on Sunday by Public Policy Polling, which has had fairly accurate results so far in the primary season, had Minnesota as a toss-up between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul not far behind.
And in Missouri, where Mr. Gingrich is not on the ballot for the “beauty contest” primary, it had Mr. Santorum ahead of Mr. Romney, 45 percent to 34 percent.
Imagine that Mr. Romney were to lose both states. That would make him zero for three in the nation’s most important swing region. It would raise questions about his performance in Ohio, probably the most important state to vote on “Super Tuesday,” March 6. Polling there also shows a competitive race.
Michigan, where Mr. Romney was born and which will vote on Feb. 28, is a safer bet for him, but he is not completely out of the woods there. The state has a large working-class population, and Mr. Romney has sometimes struggled with those voters even when he has performed well otherwise. In Nevada, for instance, Mr. Romney actually lost voters who make less than $30,000 a year, despite winning about half of the vote over all.
Imagine, moreover, that Mr. Santorum wins both Minnesota and Missouri. That could revive his campaign, especially given that he also took Iowa.
Mr. Santorum is, in many ways, a more dangerous opponent for Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich at this point. He has run a more disciplined campaign than the former House speaker, has less personal baggage and is less disliked by party leaders.