01 February 2012

Exiting Florida with its Decisive Primary Vote

Former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) scored a decisive victory in the Florida primary, winning 46% of the GOP vote, followed by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) at 32%.  Exit polls revealed that Romney carried nearly every demographic group.  But there were two striking data points from surveys of Florida voters. Firstly, 2/3rds of Sunshine State voters said that the debates mattered.  Most strikingly, the exit polls indicated that Romney carried the female vote by a 61% to 29% margin.

These results are a stark contrast to ten days earlier at Newt’s Sweet Caroline victory in which Gingrich bested Romney by a 40% to 29% margin in the Palmetto primary.   The internal numbers from South Carolina exit polls showed that Gingrich decisively carried the female vote as well as those who thought that debates mattered.

This significant swing of 25 points must be considered in the context of time and place as well as what happened on the ground.   Newt has premised his revived campaign on his prowess in debate performances.   Gingrich had two stellar debate appearances in South Carolina that garnered standing ovations from the audiences.  Moreover, Gingrich used jujitsu on the messy marital hit piece to rail against the media and personal attacks.  Since there was only a couple of days between the memory of the standing ovations and casting ballots, emotions seem to have swayed the voters.  Moreover, it is worthy to think that voters wanted to send a message against a perceived media hit piece along with supporting a self described Reagan conservative.

South Carolina is a relatively small state which does not have expensive media markets. Politics in the Palmetto State can be effectively conducted by retail politics.   Moreover, South Carolina has an open primary, where independents and others can change their registration to participate.  That may somewhat skew the results, particularly exaggerating the strength of libertarian leaning Rep. Dr. Ron Paul (R-TX 24th).

Florida is quite a different field of battle.  Florida is a large state with ten media markets, so a ground game is insufficient and competing in the Sunshine State is quite expensive.  This requires organization and financing, both of which put Gingrich at a significant disadvantage to the better organized and financed Romney.  The Romney campaign and its SuperPAC spent around $13 million in ads in Florida, which outspent Newt’s forces by 3 to 1.

Florida is a closed primary, so it was more difficult for party crossers to make mischief.   Furthermore, Florida had extended voting, which minimized the effect of a candidate peaking, as Gingrich did in slamming Jon King at the CNN Battle for the South Debate.

Before one cynically concludes that a well financed candidate like Romney “bought” Florida with negative ads, one must account for the primacy of debates and how Gingrich did not deliver that vote in the Sunshine State.   Newt did not score points with the audience during the NBC Florida debate. Consequently, Gingrich threatened not to participate in future candidate forums unless the crowd was allowed to react, effectively being televised pep rallies.  But during the CNN Florida Debate, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) seemingly stole Newt’s thunder and Gingrich did not stand out.  Moreover, Romney adapted a more combative stance during these debates, which both took the fight to his GOP challengers as well as to President Obama. Hence, it makes sense that these latest debate performances informed Floridians as they cast their primary ballots.

Of course, campaigning mattered.  Gingrich made headlights when he was positioning himself for votes along Florida's hard hit Space Coast by boasting that in Newt's second term, there would be an American Space Colony on the Moon. Moreover if this Moon colony had 13,000 voters, they could apply for statehood following the Northwest Territories model. When Newt was not floating such high concept campaign promises, Gingrich went hard and personal against his main opponent Romney.

Another factor that Florida voters strongly considered for their primary was electability.  More than half of primary voters thought that electability was crucial and 58% thought that Romney was most likely to beat President Obama whereas only three in ten voters thought the same of Gingrich.

The results showed Romney’s success with winning the Hispanic vote.  In Florida’s 2008 primary, Romney only took 14% of the Hispanic vote but this time around he took a majority.   As for the Cuban-American vote, Romney improved his standing from 2008 from 7% to 57%, which was particularly evident in Miami-Dade County.  While Senator Marco Rubio steadfastly did not endorse anyone for the Florida primary, but Rubio did intervene against Spanish language ads which Newt’s attack campaign against Romney.  Rubio’s actions may have been as influential as the last minute endorsement by former Governor Charlie Crist’s (R-I-?) of Senator John McCain, which put him over the top in the Florida primary in 2008.  Obviously, Gingrich’s pandering to long term illegal alien grandmothers during the debates did not translate into votes.

The two data points which may give slight solace to the Gingrich campaign is that 33% of self described “very conservative” voters supported Newt over Mitt by 41% to 30%.  But for the 36% of  “somewhat conservative” voters opted for Romney over Gingrich by a 52% to 30%.  As for 35% of self labeled strong “Tea Party” supporters, they voted for Gingrich over Romney by a margin of 45% to 33%. Yet for the 30%  moderate “Tea Party” partisans, Romney beat Gingrich  by 50% to 28%.

Some may discount the Florida primary vote because there were fewer participants in the GOP contest in 2012 compared to 2008.  Perhaps this was due to the number of negative ads that were broadcast to stem the tide of Newt from his South Carolina victory.   The number of Jewish GOP primary voters dropped from 7% to 1% in four years.  Maybe this was influenced by a totally untrue dirty trick robo-call in South Florida supposedly from the Newt 2012 campaign which alleged that Romney forced holocaust victims to eat non-kosher food.  Gingrich claims that he knew nothing about the robo-call, yet he made the same accusation while campaigning on Monday.  In the end, that did not matter as Romney amassed more votes (46%) than Gingrich (32%) and Santorum (13%) combined.

Due to the decisive results, Romney delivered an early victory speech.  Some might have wondered why the victor did not wait for his opponents to concede first.  Well, if one listened to Newt’s speech calling for People Power and a new Contract with America, he did not really concede nor did his congratulate Romney’s victory.  But an insightful analysis by Hugh Hewitt concluded that Romney took to the air waves early in Florida because his speech would be carried live in drive time in Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, all of which will have contests in February.  That is the mark of a methodical problem solver, not a populist politician who is trying to (right) wing it.

Gingrich has pledged to fight on for the next five or six months, unless Romney drops out in the meantime.  Such a comment was mildly amusing to rally the troops, but it is a grandiose delusion after a 14% thumping and displaying a gracelessness that has not endeared himself to many of his political colleague. Newt’s mildly spoken call to arms may be continuing to enlist very conservative and strong tea party supporters to rally to a non-Romney candidate like Newt, but it is odd to use leftist leaning People Power framework to do so.   This is particularly ironic since Gingrich campaign account only has $1.2 million and much of the advertising muscle has come from SuperPAC support from one source, Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson.

Well, February is a time for Newt’s People Power to put up or shut up in Republican, as caucuses are all about grassroots support and organizing.  Do not be surprised if Paulistinian forces make a strong run in the Maine Caucus on Saturday and Santorum becomes the mainstream non-Romney in February. Not qualifying for the ballot in Virginia and Missouri makes it exceedingly difficult for Gingrich to win outright. Gingrich needs to be able to hold on until Super Tuesday on March 6th.  Then his only hope is to score a few victories and hope that enough non-Romney delegates can be garnered to prompt a convention fight in Tampa.

Some pundits wonder if Gingrich is toying with a third party candidacy.  Surely a right leaning historian would know how disastrous it would be to have such a vanity candidacy. But such a run requires financing and organization.

The spotlight may temporarily exit Florida after the primaries but it will be the host of the Republican Convention in August.   Moreover, the Sunshine State is a swing state that is key to a Republican victory.

h/t: HughHewitt

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