With his decisive win in Florida, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney regained the momentum he had briefly lost after former House speaker Newt Gingrich defeated him in the first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina on Jan. 21.
In the days before the South Carolina vote, Romney had a comfortable 20 percentage point lead in Florida. The day after Gingrich won South Carolina, the momentum swung in Gingrich’s favor. As he rocketed to the lead in Florida, some polls even had Gingrich ahead by 10 percentage points, which was a remarkable and sudden reversal of his fortunes from just a week before South Carolina’s primary.
But as soon as Team Romney’s charter plane hit the ground in Florida, the Romney campaign surgically – and viciously – followed a statewide strategy that turned the tide back their way. Their efforts were made easier when Gingrich made several tactical blunders and showed himself to be the far from the perfect vessel to represent the Tea Party movement, which had lifted underdog Republican candidates such as Marco Rubio and Rick Scott in previous cycles.
According to interviews with strategists from current as well as recently closed GOP campaigns, Romney won Florida because:
1. Gingrich’s tactical mistake allowed Romney to win white and Hispanic votes.
Going into the Florida primary, Gingrich seemed to have the upper hand among white and Hispanic voters. Romney, on paper, was vulnerable in these areas because in his 2008 campaign for the presidency, he ran to the right of John McCain, particularly on immigration issues. That year, Romney lost the Hispanic vote, which comprises about 10 percent of Florida’s Republican primary electorate, and the more moderate vote to McCain. Romney ended up losing the state to McCain by five percentage points.
This year, though, it appeared Gingrich, with his more moderate position on immigration than Romney, could win the Hispanic vote and that Gingrich’s passionate embrace of American exceptionalism and fierce attacks against President Barack Obama would win him the white vote.
But when Gingrich’s campaign aired an ad on Spanish language radio that called Romney “anti-immigrant,” it did two things to inadvertently help Romney. First, it gave popular Florida Sen. Marco Rubio an excuse to defend Romney by saying Romney was not “anti-immigrant.” Further, Rubio asked Gingrich to take the ad down, which Gingrich did. Though Rubio officially stayed neutral in the race, Rubio’s support of Romney led many Hispanics, particularly Americans of Cuban descent, to think Rubio was on Romney’s side. Second, this tactical mistake put more of a spotlight on the candidate’s immigration positions and reminded voters that Romney was more conservative than Gingrich on immigration. Luckily, Romney was somehow able to run to the right of Gingrich on immigration while being defended by the state’s most popular Hispanic politician as not being “anti-immigrant.”
Romney could not have written the script any better, but it was actually Gingrich who accidentally put this plot in motion.
2. Organizational head start
Romney was the only candidate organized on the ground in Florida, and organized early with an eye to Florida’s robust field of absentee ballot users, estimated Tuesday at nearly 600,000 ballots cast. He used his resources by targeting those voters and identifying Romney voters and encouraging them to vote early. Because of these efforts, Romney essentially started with a five percentage point lead before Floridians went to vote at the polls Tuesday.
In addition, Romney deployed surrogates such as Rep. Connie Mack, who is running to be Florida’s next Republican senator, and even flew in advisers from Iowa, to be available at Gingrich’s events, ensuring that Romney would have a response in press reports to nearly every Gingrich event immediately after South Carolina, which blunted any momentum Gingrich was trying to build on.
3. Romney finds his voice and swagger in debates and on the stump; Gingrich hits a debate slump
The Monday after Gingrich won South Carolina, he seemed thrown off at the NBC debate when the audience obeyed moderator Brian Williams’ admonition to hold their applause. Gingrich, used to playing off the raucous audience, seemed like someone who had prepared for a performance in front of a live soundtrack only to discover that the mute button had been pushed. Others believe Gingrich was less punchy because he felt confident that, according to one-day polling, he was ahead in Florida. Whatever the cause, the first Florida debate was a bust for Gingrich.
Three days later at the Thursday debate, with his poll numbers falling, Gingrich was again was not the Gingrich of South Carolina. He later blamed his poor performance on what he called Romney’s lies, implying that he could not debate someone who just cannot tell the truth. But Gingrich was as much to blame. He missed multiple chances to attack Romney and frame him as a liberal or a moderate and position himself as an agent of change representing the anti-establishment wing of the party.
On the stump, it was a different story. Gingrich did solidify and focus his message until the last days of the campaign; but, many Floridians had voted early. Meanwhile, Romney’s stump speech was crisper – and so were his attacks against Gingrich. Romney attacked President Obama and embraced American exceptionalism on the stump while linking Gingrich to the failings of mortgage agency Freddie Mac. Romney displayed a new swagger and toughness.
Because of Romney’s organizational advantages and absentee voting strategy, which had given him a five percentage point insurance policy, Gingrich had a big job – he needed to figuratively knock Romney out at the debates and on the stump. He failed to do so, and saw his opportunity to win Florida evaporate.
4. Marianne Gingrich and taxes: Residual effects from events leading up to South Carolina
In the week leading up to South Carolina’s primary, Romney was thrown off his game by his own wobbly response to whether he would release his taxes. Further, when ABC aired an interview with Marianne Gingrich – the former House speaker’s second wife – that revealed nothing new, Gingrich’s support seemed to galvanize more in his favor.
But politics does not happen in a bubble; Floridians were paying attention to these storylines as much as South Carolinians were.
In Florida, Romney’s tax situation actually helped him. According to a poll conducted Monday by Public Policy Polling, 66 percent of Floridians viewed rich people in a favorable light.
Gingrich, on the other hand, was most likely hurt among Florida’s more moderate women voters after Marianne Gingrich’s comments were rehashed and repeatedly played on all major television networks. Romney, according to a Marist poll, led Gingrich among women voters by 20 percentage points going into the primary day.
5. Money, money, money
Money may never buy Romney love from conservatives, but it sure can buy him momentum.
Romney, and outside groups supportive of him, outspent Gingrich by more than four to one in Florida. According to reports, roughly $17 million was spent for Romney while $3.5 million was spent for Gingrich in a state with 10 media markets that can only be won on television and, less so, on the radio.
6. Redefining Gingrich on television and radio
Romney was able to flood the zone, as they say in sports, with his message on television and radio, including Spanish language radio, and thus marginalize the Gingrich message, at least on the paid airwaves. Florida is won on the airwaves, and Romney and his allies increased Gingrich’s unfavorable ratings by reminding Floridians of Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac and framing Gingrich as an influence peddler. The blitz was similar to what happened to Gingrich in Iowa and seemed to deflate the usually irrepressible Gingrich. Last weekend, Gingrich referred to the barrage of negative ads against him as a “carpet bomb.”