As the recent events in Florida demonstrate, a week is still a lifetime in politics.
Coming out of the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney’s campaign was in significant disarray; Newt Gingrich seemed to have emerged as the long-awaited “conservative alternative to Romney,” with a path to the nomination, a positive and negative message that seemed to be resonating with Tea Party activists, and the Super-PAC money to compete in an expensive state like Florida. “Establishment” Republicans, including some key conservative opinion-leaders, were beginning to panic.
Now, the day after Florida, Romney is back in charge of the race, and while Gingrich, Santorum and Paul are all still campaigning avidly, it’s difficult to see a clear path to victory for any of them.
Romney, who fell immediately and badly behind in Florida polls after the South Carolina results were in, recovered last week and won the state by a 46-32 margin over Gingrich (Santorum, who won 13 percent, and Paul, who took 7 percent, conceded the state and spent little time there).
There were four main factors in the Florida turn-around: money, debates, opinion-leaders, and demographics.
On the money front, Romney and his Super-PAC outspent Gingrich and his Super-PAC by nearly a 5-1 margin – precisely, $15.7 million to $3.3. million, contradicting initial reports that Newt’s Super-PAC would buy $6 million in Florida media. Additionally, Romney began running ads before South Carolina, which enabled him to “bank” a significant lead among early voters (about 30% of total votes). Romney’s ads were heavily negative, and focused particularly on Gingrich’s Freddie Mac consulting contract, a powerful issue in a state hit very hard by the collapse of the housing market.
The two candidate debates were Gingrich’s big opportunity to establish momentum and excite conservatives, as he did so effectively in South Carolina. Yet Newt basically bombed, particularly in the final 1/26 event, where he let Romney get to his right on immigration policy and seemed defensive and nervous.
Opinion-leaders, in Florida and nationally, took a major toll on Gingrich and undermined his ideological bona fides. In-state, he was sharply criticized by the state’s most popular Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, for ads calling Romney “anti-immigrant.” Even more importantly, key leaders in Miami’s Cuban-American community, most notably the Diaz-Balart brothers and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, endorsed Romney and worked hard for him. Meanwhile, national Republicans, including credible conservatives like the editors of National Review, labeled Gingrich erratic and unelectable, and flatly denied his claims of being an important contributor to the Reagan legacy.
And finally, Florida was a much better state for Romney demographically than South Carolina: less “southern” culturally, with more relative moderates, fewer evangelicals, and a sizable Hispanic population dominated by Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, who were unmoved by Gingrich’s efforts to attack Romney as hostile to immigrants. In the end, Gingrich won several of the same demographic categories he won in South Carolina —evangelicals, “very” conservative voters, and strong Tea Party supporters—but they simply represented a much smaller percentage of the electorate.
By election eve, Gingrich was clearly flailing. He resorted to very harsh attacks on Romney as a tool of the “Republican Establishment,” over-the-top appeals to Christian Right audiences, and such strange tactics as a robocall targeting Jews (only 1% of the Republican electorate in Florida) with claims that Romney had cut off funding for kosher food at Massachusetts nursing homes.
On primary day, Gingrich even pledged to keep the competition with Romney going for “six or eight months”. This was a rather interesting remark as it would extend his candidacy well past the Republican Convention. In the end, though, the main thrust of his concession speech was to demand that Rick Santorum get out of the race. Santorum, in turn, reciprocated by saying Gingrich had lost his “shot”.
The most important question for Gingrich now is whether he can convince his main Super-PAC donor, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, to keep sending checks. The next contest is a caucus in Nevada which Romney has long been favored to win. Next Tuesday, Missouri also holds a non-binding primary in which Gingrich is not even on the ballot, along with caucuses, in Colorado, where Santorum is hoping to make a splash. After that comes Minnesota, another state where Romney is favored.
To make matters worse for Gingrich, Romney will remain difficult to beat as February comes to a close. On February 28th, Romney is heavily favored in his native state of Michigan, and will also be able to count on a sizable Mormon vote in Arizona. The road ahead is thus difficult and expensive for Gingrich until Super Tuesday, March 6, when the Speaker will have the chance to compete in his home state of Georgia . That being said, however, Gingrich will surely lose Massachusetts to Romney. He is also unlikely to win Ohio, and once again is not even on the ballot in Virginia.
All in all, while the wild gyrations of this nomination contest so far make it difficult to say it’s over, Romney has the money, momentum, and the strategy to win fairly easily if he does not make mistakes. If Adelson cuts off Gingrich’s money, it could happen sooner rather than later. The longer it goes on, of course, the more permanent damage Romney could sustain to his favorability among the non-Republicans, those who are watching him bob and weave and try to outflank his opponents to the right.
Photo credit: boris.rasin