Last night’s win by Mitt Romney in the Florida GOP primary was sweeping and impressive. He won every age group, every region of the state (his biggest margins were in Miami-Dade, northeast Florida, and Tampa Bay), men as well as women, Latinos by a huge margin, Catholic voters (by 26 points over two Roman Catholic candidates), moderates, self-identified conservatives, and Tea Party voters. He did so in an electorate that was more female (49 percent), more conservative (68 percent), more pro-life (58 percent), and more evangelical (40 percent) than the Florida electorate four years ago.
This was the first closed primary of 2012, which could have been difficult terrain for a candidate whose conservative bona fides are under fire. But Romney’s 14-point victory — -without the endorsement of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio — far exceeded McCain’s five-point margin four years ago after receiving the critical endorsement of then-governor Charlie Crist, who was the most popular politician in the state at the time.
How did Mitt do it? First, a superior team, organization, and financial resources. Money matters in politics, especially in a large state geographically with multiple media markets stretching across two time zones. Here Romney’s financial advantage took hold. He outspent Newt Gingrich by $17 million to $4 million, and that was just on television. His campaign also had a highly sophisticated program to identify and persuade absentee-ballot and early voters, who represented 40 percent of the vote. His lead is estimated to have been over 75,000 votes before the polls even opened on Tuesday.
Second, much better debate performances. Gingrich dominated the two debates leading up to South Carolina while Romney seemed defensive and off message, and the debates played a major role in Gingrich’s victory. Romney retooled, became more aggressive and less snippy, and seemed to enjoy the combat. Voters want someone who can go toe-to-toe with Obama in the fall. In this sense, the debates have had an exaggerated role in 2012 because the candidates are in effect auditioning for the right to stand on a stage with Obama and more than hold their own.
Finally, Florida played out well for Romney because of the severe mortgage crisis and sluggish tourist industry, which played to Mitt’s sweet spot on the economy and jobs. By releasing his tax returns, he was able to get past the issue of his personal finances (at least for now, though that issue will return) and focus like a laser on the economy.
Among evangelicals, Romney held his own. They were a record 40 percent of the vote, and he essentially split them with Gingrich (36 percent to Newt’s 38 percent). To win, Gingrich needed a number closer to the 44 percent of the evangelical vote he won in South Carolina. Romney’s appeal to social conservatives seems to be improving. In Iowa, he won only 14 percent; in South Carolina, he won 22 percent; and last night, he won 36 percent in Florida. The jostling over Tea Party and social-conservative voters is one of the more interesting subplots of the campaign.
There are warning signs amid the good news for the Romney campaign. Strong Tea Party supporters and self-identified “very conservative” voters continue to support other candidates. They are clearly not yet sold on Romney. As with McCain in 2008, this suggests a lagging intensity among the grassroots when the GOP nominee will need every player on the field against the Obama machine and money. Romney has some work to do.
This race has been a series of surprises, from Santorum’s amazing win in Iowa to Newt’s Lazarus-like victory in South Carolina. Last night was no exception. This race is not over. There are caucus states to come that favor more conservative candidates such as Santorum or Gingrich, and Super Tuesday shifts the terrain to the South, where there are even more conservatives and evangelicals, two groups with which Romney has struggled. But last night was a big win and an impressive comeback for Romney.
— Ralph Reed is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.