Romney Deals Gingrich Crushing Blow, Restores Inevitability in Florida Win

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 31 2012 10:56 PM

Inevitability Restored

Romney crushes Gingrich with a big Florida win.

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Mitt Romney won by vast margins on the two key questions of the election

Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

Newt Gingrich promised Florida voters the moon and he crashed to earth. Mitt Romney won the crucial state big with 46 percent of the vote, beating Gingrich by 14 points. In Brevard County, where Gingrich's pledge to build a lunar colony might have wooed voters who worked in the space industry, Romney won by 7 points.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Inevitability restored. Romney has won snowbird victories in New Hampshire and Florida. He won Florida with almost 50 percent of the vote, a key psychological threshold for a candidate whose detractors once said he had a ceiling of 25 percent. Romney now rolls on with bragging rights: He dominated the biggest contest to date in a state that is representative of the Republican coalition and that is the largest contested prize in the general election. And he rolls on with wheels that are made of money. As the Florida polls were closing, his campaign announced that it had raised $24 million in the fourth quarter to Gingrich's nearly $10 million. Romney has $20 million in the bank he can use.

Romney won by vast margins on the two key questions of the election. According to exit polls, among the 45 percent of voters who wanted someone who was in the best position to beat Obama, Romney won 58 percent to Gingrich’s 32 percent. Among the 62 percent for whom the economy was the number one issue, Romney won 52 percent to Gingrich’s 29.

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Romney's strongest argument will be that he was able to win with conservatives. Though both candidates are insiders, Newt Gingrich tried to make Romney's support within the party a liability. He tried to turn the race into a battle between the establishment and the grassroots. It was people power versus money power, said Gingrich (whose campaign has been aided by $10 million in donations from Sheldon Adelson). Exit polls suggest that the argument didn't work. Romney won by four percentage points over Gingrich among the 65 percent of voters who say they are supporters of the Tea Party. He won by a similar margin among the 65 percent who call themselves conservatives. Gingrich won those who considered themselves "very conservative" and those who "strongly identify" with the Tea Party. 

Romney even challenged Gingrich in north Florida, a conservative stronghold. Gingrich’s argument for continuing his campaign—which he pledged to do tonight—is that he enjoys strong support in the American South. But the panhandle mirrors the South as much as any portion of Florida.

Negative ads worked. Romney dumped $16 million of negative ads into the state. Gingrich said he thought Romney’s aggression would backfire. It didn't work. Voters thought both candidates aired unfair ads, but of those that thought so of Romney, a far larger proportion voted for him anyway. Also, in the last three days before the election, late-deciding voters went with Romney, suggesting that instead of penalizing him as Gingrich had hoped, they rushed into his arms. 

The contest coming into Florida was between Romney's money and organization and Gingrich's momentum. Money and organization won out. Romney was on the airwaves beating on Gingrich in early January when there wasn't much competition. This might have locked in voters. Florida voters made up their minds earlier than in other states. (Only 28 percent said they decided in the last three days; in previous states the number was almost twice as much.) If the ads didn't do it, Romney's superior ground game did. His team started working the absentee and early voters in mid-December. Romney won that vote by a wide margin. 

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