Florida is a big state in terms of both geography and population. Consequently—and also because it does not receive the wildly disproportionate attention that Iowa and New Hampshire do—it cannot be won through old-fashioned grassroots politicking alone. The Florida campaign is fought primarily on the airwaves, so it takes money to compete there. That’s why candidates who excel more in exciting an ideological base on a limited budget, such as Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, skipped Florida to focus on upcoming caucus states, starting with Nevada.
Paul had his weakest showing thus far in Florida, with only 7 percent. Santorum told CNN on Tuesday night that he stopped campaigning in Florida because he lacked the funds to compete there. It’s too bad for him. After a strong debate performance on Thursday, this might have been his moment. Despite barely campaigning in Florida, he came in at third place with 13 percent.
But Tuesday night belonged to Mitt Romney, who vastly outspent his opponents. According to USA Today, “Restore our Future, an outside group supporting Romney, accounted for about $8.8 million in the ad wars, and the candidate and the ‘super PAC’ combined outspent Gingrich and Winning The Future, the organization backing him, by about $15.5 million to $3.3 million.” These ads were overwhelmingly negative. Romney did not so much win as he defeated Gingrich.
Here are the two main reasons Romney won Florida by a commanding 47 percent to Gingrich’s 32 percent.
Demographics are destiny. As exit polls show, Romney’s relative strengths and weaknesses among different segments of the Republican electorate remain fairly stable from state to state, but the composition of the electorate changes. Florida’s Republican electorate was more demographically favorable to him than than of Iowa or South Carolina. First of all, it’s old, which helps Romney and Gingrich and hurts Santorum and Paul. In every state thus far we’ve seen Paul’s support, and to a lesser extent Santorum’s, skew younger, while Gingrich’s and Rommey’s lean older. Among voters 65 and older, who compose 36 percent of the Florida Republican electorate, Romney won 51 percent and Gingrich got 34 percent. Only 6 percent of the electorate was under 30, and no exit poll breakdown for how they voted is available. But among 30–39 year-olds Romney got 37 percent to Gingrich’s 25, while Paul got 18 percent and Santorum won 17 percent.
The other big demographic advantage for Romney was the relative moderation of Florida’s Republican voters compared to South Carolina’s. He’s still having trouble sealing the deal with the most conservative Republicans, but luckily for him they were not as big a factor. Among the one-third of voters who identified themselves as “very conservative,” Gingrich won with 41 percent to Romney’s 30 and Santorum’s 22. But Romney trounced Gingrich and Santorum among voters who identified as “somewhat conservative” and voters who described themselves as moderate or liberal, winning majorities in both categories. This is why Romney is clearly the GOP’s strongest potential candidate in swing states such as Florida. That, in turn, is why the Republican establishment came out with overwhelming force in Romney’s favor, or at least against Gingrich.