Politics Counts: How Well Can Romney Do in February?

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With January in the books, the GOP nominating contest sits where many thought it would be — including Politics Counts. Two wins for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and two wins for conservative alternatives to him – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.

Mr. Romney’s got the delegate lead, the front-runner status and the momentum, but judging by all the movement of the past six months it’s hard  to tell what that means. The campaign now enters what many are describing as an interstitial period between the exciting early contests and the jam-packed primary calendar of March.

But seven states hold nominating contests in February (Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Maine, Arizona and Michigan) and they should not be ignored. Six of them will have convention delegates up for grabs. The vote from them will show us a lot about what the Republican field will look like come March 6, Super Tuesday, and beyond.

Looking at the February states using Patchwork Nation’s demographic/geographic breakdown, the next four weeks should be a good time for Mr. Romney to pick up delegates and momentum, but there are a few areas of concern for him as well.

The good news out of Florida for the Romney camp was the candidate re-established his footing with the relatively well-to-do, moderate counties Patchwork Nation calls the Monied Burbs. Up to South Carolina they had been very good territory for him and they were again on Tuesday. He won six of seven Monied Burbs in Florida and 49% of the vote overall from those counties.

Winning those swing-voting places is integral to the Romney campaign’s electability argument because a lot of people live in those counties (some 69 million) and the Burbs play a big role in the next set of contests. The Burbs account for more than 20% of the population in five of the February states – Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri.

The Boom Town counties, which saw heavy population growth in the last decade, are well represented on the calendar as well. (They are in rust in the map below.) They hold more than 15% of the population in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and Nevada. And in Nevada, they account for an astounding 93% of the population largely because of Clark County, home of Las Vegas. Nevada also has a large Mormon population, which should help Mr. Romney. ...

Still, Mr. Romney faces some challenges in February – or at least some areas to watch. Keep an eye on Michigan and Minnesota and especially the small-town Service Worker Center counties in those states. (In red on the map below.) Those counties tend to have lower than average household incomes and have struggled particularly hard in the recession. While Mr. Romney has done OK in them, they have also presented challenges.

Read the rest of this week's POLITICS COUNTS COLUMN on the WALL STREET JOURNAL'S Website.