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.
Here’s another way—one that is being largely misrepresented in the media—of looking at the conservative-versus-moderate divide. Commentators are pointing to the fact that Romney edged out Gingrich 41-37 among the 65 percent of voters who said they support the Tea Party as evidence that Romney is finally winning over the Tea Party movement. But simply saying “yes” to the question of whether you support the Tea Party is not the same as really being a member of the Tea Party. If you asked Democrats whether they support the environmental movement you might find two-thirds say yes, but the vast majority of those people would not be representative of dedicated environmental activists.
Among the 35 percent of voters who said they “strongly support” the Tea Party movement, Gingrich beat Romney 45-35. But Romney won 50-28 among the 30 percent who said they “somewhat support” the Tea Party, and he won landslides among those who said they hold neutral or negative views of the Tea Party. (Romney beat Gingrich 57 to 22 and 62 to 17 among those two groups, respectively.)
So among Florida Republicans “Tea Party support” is just another term for conservatism. The bad news for Romney: the voters who are very conservative and strongly support the Tea Party might be the voters most likely to show up in lower-profile primaries and caucuses, where turnout is lower and the most partisan, ideological and activist voters tend to be over-represented. The good news? Romney remains stronger with prospective swing voters, which might bode well for relatively moderate upcoming states like Michigan and Ohio, and in the general election.
You can even view this same phenomenon through the prism of geography. In Florida, as you go north Romney’s numbers go south. He dominated Gingrich in South Florida, 56 to 28, but he had smaller margins of victory in the Tampa and Orlando areas. In North Florida and the Panhandle, Gingrich beat Romney, 39 to 38. Of course, in Florida the north is the South. The South is the Republicans’ strongest region, and it remains relatively favorable to Gingrich and unfavorable to Romney. That being said, Romney performed better in the Panhandle than he did in South Carolina. And central and Southern Florida look a lot more like some of the upcoming states—and crucial swing states this Fall—such as Nevada and Colorado.
Another important demographic factor for Romney was religion. Only 40 percent of the electorate in Florida were white evangelical Christians. Gingrich edged Romney among those voters 38 to 36. Romney beat Gingrich 2 to 1 among all other voters. Romney is lucky that evangelicals are not a majority of Florida Republicans, as they were in the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary.
Effective attacks. Gingrich and Romney may make a lot of petty accusations about whose personal gains from lobbying or investing were more ill-gotten, but Romney also went after Gingrich on substance.
He had plenty to work with. One devastating Romney ad consisted entirely of a clip from the NBC Nightly News in 1997, when Tom Brokaw opened with a report on then-Speaker Gingrich being found guilty by his colleagues of ethical improprieties. The text was so strong it’s worth repeating in full:
Good evening. Newt Gingrich, who came to power, after all, preaching a higher standard in American politics, a man who brought down another speaker on ethics accusations, tonight he has on his own record the judgment of his peers, Democrat and Republican alike. By an overwhelming vote, they found him guilty of ethics violations; they charged him a very large financial penalty, and they raised—several of them—raised serious questions about his future effectiveness.
The Gingrich campaign put out a press release combating the claims—Gingrich was cleared of most of the charges—but once you’re explaining and defending yourself, you’re losing. Anyway, the voters who saw the commercial mostly probably never heard Gingrich’s rebuttal.
Other Romney ads noted that Gingrich—who constantly inveighs against “Washington elites”—is the ultimate Washington insider.
Speaking of being a Washington insider, Gingrich’s rhetoric in stump speeches and debates claims credit for virtually all of President Ronald Reagan’s political and policy successes. Gingrich, who was a freshman in Congress when Reagan was elected in 1980, is wildly exaggerating the role he played in getting Reagan’s tax cuts passed or winning his landslide re-election in 1984. Restore Our Future, a Romney-supporting Super PAC, put out an ad noting, “From debates you’d think Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan’s vice president.” But, as the ad noted, Reagan’s diaries mention Gingrich only once and Reagan opposed Gingrich’s foreign policy ideas.
Romney also criticized Gingrich in debates for his aggravating and hypocritical habit of promising targeted government largesse to every early primary state. In New Hampshire Gingrich demanded a new local Veterans Administration hospital. In South Carolina he promised a new Interstate highway connection and upgrades to the port of Charleston. In Florida, he jumped the shark, promising the Space Coast a major investment in colonizing the Moon. Making such a ridiculous promise backfired on Gingrich, and Romney took advantage of it.
Romney did, of course, run commercials hitting Gingrich for the money he earned consulting for Freddie Mac. In fairness to Romney, though, this is actually a more legitimate attack than Gingrich’s complaint that Romney made money at Bain Capital by sometimes laying off workers at firms Bain bought. For the same reason it’s also more effective. If you’re a Republican, you supposedly believe in the free market but not crony capitalism. Thus lobbying, or even just providing political strategy consulting, for a government-sponsored corporation such as Freddie Mac will strike you as much more distasteful than simply competing to increase your wealth in the private sector through reducing labor costs, as Romney did. This is especially true in Florida, which has been hit hard by the mortgage crisis. Romney, naturally, capitalized on this fact, accusing Gingrich of profiting off the misfortune of Floridians.
All of this effective negative campaigning resulted in a bonus for Romney: he got under Newt’s skin. Gingrich is pompous, and he appears to have an inflated but somewhat fragile ego. Gingrich’s ham-handed efforts to get back at Romney, such as by noting that Romney had investments in Freddie Mac, seemed like pathetic grasping. Speaking on Tuesday night, Gingrich seemed churlish and increasingly detached from reality. As everyone knows, Gingrich is capable of being his own worst enemy. If Romney succeeds in making Gingrich behave that way, his own path to the nomination will be a lot easier.