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.
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.
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.
Romney won the 15 percent Hispanic vote 54 to 28. Gingrich had tried to make Romney's tough anti-illegal immigration position an issue, but it didn't work. That may be because the vote in Florida consists largely of Cubans, who are shielded from immigration policies that apply to other immigrants, and of Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens. Romney also won among women by 24 points.
The biggest blow for Gingrich is that exit polls show that just 55 percent of the voters view him favorably. Gingrich's big problem has always been that his low favorability rating with independent and swing voters makes it very hard for him to win the general election. That he can barely get a majority among his own tribe highlights how hard it would be for him as the GOP nominee. Seventy-four percent of voters had a favorable view of Romney.
Gingrich will argue that if you add the Santorum vote to his it shows that the anti-Romney vote almost totals what Romney won. But elections don't work that way. Polling in Florida showed that Santorum's voters would split equally between Gingrich and Romney if their man fell out of the race. Teresa Ruiz is one such voter. At a Romney rally in Halijah, Fla., she said she wanted to vote for Santorum but didn't think he could beat Obama so she went with Romney. "I wanted to go with my heart," she said, "but I went with my head instead."
Romney emerges a stronger candidate. He certainly showed he was willing to do what it takes, for those voters who might worry about whether he was tough enough to go up against Obama. The terrain is now very favorable as Romney heads into contests in Nevada, Michigan, Colorado, and Minnesota. He won all four of those in 2008. The next contest where Gingrich might have a good chance is almost a month from now, on Super Tuesday. There is only one debate in that stretch.
The Romney camp was hoping for a victory big enough to start calls for an end to the bruising contest, and they got one. Romney still needs 1,054 more delegates. Gingrich has vowed to fight on. He can argue that the northern counties where he won resemble the southern states that will vote on Super Tuesday. But the pressure will build for Gingrich to get out of the race. Obama is vulnerable. The Gallup 2011 average of Obama's approval rating in 12 swing states was 43 percent—dangerous territory for an incumbent. So don't blow it, Romney's backers will argue, by dragging out the primary fight. Romney's image with independents has already been dinged by the process. His unfavorable ratings among independents went up 15 points in a recent Washington Post poll.
Such arguments aren’t likely to convince Gingrich. His favorite story is of Washington's battle near Trenton, N.J., in which the soldiers marched on despite losses and a lack of footwear. "If you're not yet walking in a burlap bag you don't have much of an excuse," he has said about enduring political struggles. In his speech after the vote Gingrich promised to pledge his "life" and his "sacred honor" to the country if he won. He did not sound like a man who was going to give up marching
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