Newt Gingrich has surged and fallen back, surged and fallen back. Each time, he has managed to stage a sharp assault on the pole position, with moments of political bravado on the debate stage. There is little question that GOP voters have their own form of PTSD over George W. Bush’s inability (or unwillingness) to defend himself and his policies during his two terms. Newt Gingrich, despite his many flaws, speaks to that bad memory. With his sharp rejoinders, he effectively says, “I won’t sit on my hands after someone smacks me in the mouth.”
But in our ultra-fast news cycle, those moments come and go. Gingrich can’t pull out grand slams at will. And when he falls short, his temporarily intense coalition falls apart. In addition, the debate opportunities are about to dry up. Gingrich futures are trending down rapidly.
Mitt Romney has benefited from the traditional GOP tendency to go with the establishment. Despite silly and needless missteps on matters such as releasing his taxes and carrying the albatross of Romneycare about his neck, the former governor of Massachusetts has clear technocratic (though not so much ideological) appeal on economic issues and feels like the candidate most likely to keep the focus of the general election on the incumbent and his record. What Republicans need to avoid most is allowing the focus to shift from President Obama. Republicans seem to instinctively rally reluctantly around Romney as the best of a flawed field. The inevitability factor is kicking in, but it would be better for Romney to have to fight longer so as to fully air out his vulnerabilities and sharpen his message and defenses.
Rick Santorum has not been able to translate his Iowa win into enough support to seriously pressure Gingrich into dropping out. Though he is a more attractive candidate than Gingrich in many ways, he has not been able to move beyond a series of respectable showings. Santorum’s failure to challenge Gingrich makes the evangelical head honchos look like less than influential shepherds of their flocks.
— Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and associate professor of political science at Union University.
What stands out most to me looking at the results from Florida is the growing North/South divide among self-identified conservatives. Strong conservatives and Tea Partiers overwhelmingly backed Romney in New Hampshire and Gingrich in South Carolina, and split in Iowa and Florida. And the Florida split broke down depending on geography — the culturally southern panhandle backed Gingrich, while the culturally northern peninsula backed Romney.
The implication is that voters’ views of these two candidates are being strongly determined not just in terms of ideology, but also in terms of geography. Moderates — North and South — are going for Romney. Conservatives are splitting depending on where they live.
This is bad news for Gingrich because he just lost winner-take-all Florida and is not on the ballot in Virginia. It is hard to be a victorious southern candidate when you lose two of the eleven states to the northerner.
— Jay Cost is author of the upcoming Spoiled Rotten: The Story of How the Democratic Party Embraced Special Interests, Abandoned the Public Good, and Came to Stand for Everything It Once Opposed.
In Florida, the anti-Gingrich vote swelled in the final days.
Women began to avoid Newt in large numbers: Romney beat Gingrich by an astounding 22-point margin among women, compared with just five percentage points among men.
Among wives, the avoidance of Gingrich was even more marked: Married women went for Romney 51 to 28 percent for Gingrich, while their husbands split almost evenly — 37 percent for Romney versus 35 percent for Newt.
Forty-one percent of Florida primary voters view Gingrich unfavorably, compared with 21 percent who see Romney unfavorably.
Yes, Romney outspent Gingrich on negative ads. But he also outspent Gingrich in South Carolina on negative ads.
And in Florida, the Democrats piled on Romney, as the Orlando Sentinel pointed out:
The Democrats are targeting Mitt Romney as if he were already the Republican nominee running against President Barack Obama, with campaign ads, Internet videos, daily news conferences and dozens of news releases attacking the former Massachusetts governor.
Traditional Democratic partners are jumping in, too. Both the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ and Service Employees International Union’s political-action committees are running their own TV commercials in Florida this week – attacking Romney.
(Hmm, could the anti-Holocaust kosher food robo-call be a Dem dirty trick?)
Gingrich’s poor performance in the two big debates did him no favors, but I’m guessing it was Newt’s response to his subpar performance that sealed his fate — his petulant, whiny, personal complaints in the aftermath of the debate (i.e., They did not give me an audience. They gave me the wrong audience. I won’t debate Obama at all if journalists moderate. It’s Romney fault for lying about me). It sounded more like a tantrum than a campaign.
And Florida voters ended up agreeing with Mitt that we can’t take the risk on Gingrich.
— Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist.
If you’ve suspected that Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are all a bit too small, too quirky, and too demographically unrepresentative to offer a perfect proving ground for a Republican presidential candidate . . . this cycle is confirming a lot of your fears.
Poor Rick Santorum has taken a win — albeit shamefully delayed — in Iowa and turned it into#…#just about nothing. Ten percent in New Hampshire. Seventeen percent — and no delegates — in South Carolina. About 13 percent — and no delegates — in Florida. Traditionally, candidates pour their time and energy and financial resources into one of the first two states, believing that a win or near-win there generates momentum. After the experiences of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, it is unclear if an Iowa win generates any real momentum anywhere else.
New Hampshire offers a very different electorate from Iowa, but it ultimately offers a primary electorate in which only 49 percent of voters identify themselves as Republicans. An astounding 45 percent of the state’s voters are registered independents.
If Newt Gingrich designed his perfect state, it would probably look like South Carolina: older, deeply conservative, filled with evangelical Christians, and eager to send a message to both “the media” and “the establishment.” If CPAC were a state, it would be South Carolina. But the worries of those voters are not, it seems, quite as dominant among Republicans as a whole.
Florida is diverse — Latinos, entrepreneurs, rural, urban, suburban, military families, retirees — and huge, with 4 million registered Republicans and about 2 million voters in this year’s primary. On this much larger playing field, Romney cleaned up. He won every age group, every education level, both marital statuses, both genders (women by a lot), every income level, and every ideological group except for those who consider themselves to be “very conservative” — winning 30 percent to Gingrich’s 42 percent.
The early primaries are like preseason football, offering such a different format of competition that it doesn’t, ultimately, offer a good glimpse of each competitor’s skill, drive, and tenacity in the higher-stakes contests to come.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.
By any measure, and using any analytical tool available, it is a blowout win for Mitt Romney.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Team Romney announce that on the strength of Florida’s overwhelming victory, the former Massachusetts governor will be refusing future GOP debate invitations unless and until someone comes within five points of him in an actual election. The rationale is simple: The GOP expects its nominee to be smart and ready to take on the president. A smart presumptive nominee will not continue to give his opponents or the MSM the chance to bleed him in public, or infuse their campaigns with massive amounts of free media and hostile network anchors with opportunities to score points on behalf of the president.
A variation of this approach would be to announce that the February 22 Arizona debate will be the last intramural contest Romney will engage in, unless one of the three remaining candidates can actually best him in a real vote somewhere. Prepping the exit from the endless debate march is a crucial task ahead.
Bottom line in many GOP minds tonight: The Republicans simply cannot win back the White House without Florida reverting red. It is hard to imagine either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum carrying the state in the fall should lightning strike down the road.
That said, Santorum has the right to argue that he deserves the one-on-one shot that Newt essentially got in Florida.
I don’t expect either Gingrich or Santorum to quit the race, but neither do I expect Romney to continue to give either of them opportunities to get back in the ring after he so completely dominated the fight tonight in November’s must-win state of Florida.
Final note: Marco Rubio did an enormous service to Mitt Romney with his two non-endorsement interventions the past few days. Rubio is an absolutely electric presence on the national scene, and his ability to help deliver the Sunshine State in the fall cannot be underestimated
— Hugh Hewitt is host of The Hugh Hewitt Show and author of the 2007 book A Mormon in the White House? 10 Things Every American Should Know about Mitt Romney.
Tonight’s results are no surprise to most of us, considering how much money was spent in this state. While any of these candidates would be better than Barack Obama, the Republican electorate is still deeply divided and the Florida results show that more people voted for another candidate than for the winner, Mitt Romney.
It is obvious that money has had a huge impact in Florida. What is concerning is that most of this money is being used to tear down other candidates with negative advertising. The candidates need to stay positive and let Americans know what they are going to do to get us out of this financial mess.
Each candidate has vowed to continue in this horse race, and I hope that this doesn’t divide Republicans even more. If the Republican base remains divided, it only benefits the Democrats. Republicans need to come together, remain positive, and focus on making President Obama a one-term president.
— Amy Kremer is the Chairman of TeaPartyExpress.org
To the extent that Mitt Romney needed to prove, at least once, that he could garner close to a majority, even of Republicans, Florida was a big win, especially by the margin he produced. But I am disinclined to accept the conventional wisdom that Florida is dispositive. In fact, I don’t even understand it.
Even if it has been historically true, many other historical truths have been shattered in the last few years. Regardless, an intense primary contest will continue because a) neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum, let alone Ron Paul, appear to have any intention of dropping out and, b) their respective supporters don’t want them to. The nastiness of the Florida campaign ensures that, and also that we are far from healing, sadly. The media and other “experts” are always so sure about which states matter the most and who is or isn’t electable — which is remarkable, given their track record. It’s ludicrous to allow a handful of states to decide this whole thing. Besides, it’s healthy for the process to continue because, assuming some of these guys don’t kill each other (figuratively), they’ll grow and we’ll get a better idea of how electable each of them will be in the general.
One of the central arguments advanced by Romney supporters is his electability — as opposed to other things that might inspire us. I have questioned that assumption too, and, if a vigorous contest continues, it might help us determine whether Romney’s support is real or too soft. There is still a strong non-Romney sentiment out there and we need to see how it plays out, especially if one of the other two (Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum) were to drop out, which could change the dynamics overnight. So, as long as Newt and/or Rick can raise sufficient money to proceed, let’s march on and see where it takes us.
— David Limbaugh is a nationally syndicated columnist.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ
What a difference a week can make in the life of an American political campaign! The debates were a gift to Newt Gingrich, until they weren’t. The former speaker of the House had his chance to be the alternative to Romney — as it is so cynically put — and he lost it; he lost it disgracefully. As far as I’m concerned, given the shamelessness of his final attacks on Romney, Gingrich cannot drop out soon enough. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was an ally to those of us who care about the conscience rights of Americans, vetoing a bill that he took a lot of flak for, and articulating his position well.
I’ve loved some of the opportunities to educate voters that Gingrich has taken over the course of this campaign — particularly on the matter of religious liberty. But he did himself, the primary process, and the truth a real disservice this week.
Rick Santorum, meanwhile, has honorably articulated some serious concerns held by conservatives. When he criticized Romney on health care, as he did in the last debates, he gave voice to these worries and raised an important question: Does nominee Romney take health-care off the table as an issue?
This race isn’t over, but there are well-earned sighs of relief coming from the Romney campaign this morning. Mitt Romney showed his relief in a good victory speech last night, in which he managed to hit notes of optimism, without relying on lines that sounded as they had been produced by a consultant, or reciting patriotic lyrics that feed a narrative about his inauthenticity.
If there is to be a challenger left in this nomination fight, I hope the field clears for Santorum to be that fair and hard-working man.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.
As a historian, Newt Gingrich is surely familiar with the old saw, “Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?” That’s about the way he’ll have to approach the Florida primary results. This was a shellacking of the highest order, and it takes a very self-confident man to see any glimmers of hope from the wreckage.
Mitt Romney was dominant almost everywhere. He won Hispanics by a very large margin, carried all regions of the state except the rural counties in North and Central Florida, and even won among all age and income groups for the first time in the campaign. While Romney’s support still rises with income, peaking at over 60 percent among those earning over $200,000 a year, he finally showed he could carry the middle class by decisive margins.
Above all, this was a referendum on Newt Gingrich, and the response was deafening. It would be easy to take the brutal personal attacks, personally, and lash out in kind in the coming weeks. But a candidate who keeps his eye on the prize will look at the GOP kingmakers, somewhat-conservative voters, and resist that temptation. These voters broke for Newt in South Carolina and Mitt in Florida — they always pick the winner in GOP contests. They want someone who is conservative enough, but is also a leader with experience and judgment. Talking about Moon colonies and attacking Romney on Bain Capital is not the way to win them over. Instead, Gingrich needs to draw a steady contrast by chipping away at Romney’s conservative bona fides and raising questions about his judgment in office. Playing to the party base with angry, overheated appeals is a sure fire way to become an afterthought very quickly.
— Henry Olsen is director of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative.
My assumption is that the creation of majorities in our republic is — has always been — a messy business, and that we shouldn’t be surprised that this GOP primary is messy and blurry, and made all the more so by an unimpressive media that focuses only on the fleeting. Yet, the fog is lifting now and it is becoming clear that the only candidate who is both a conservative and is able to practice the politics of inclusion — of pulling folks toward his views on how to revivify limited constitutional self-government — is Mitt Romney.
Romney’s impressive victory in Florida reveals this. He will cobble together a majority within the GOP because he is a smart man, a conservative, and, let us admit, a well-balanced individual. It is now also clear that his campaign is well run. Gingrich, this so-called man of ideas, is ungraciously appealing to — as he calls it — people power instead of financial power. This is not impressive and it is not conservative. Gingrich is tired, languid, and seems a bit desperate. Romney should take the high ground — as he did in tonight’s speech. If he does, he will walk into the convention with a majority of the delegates and everyone will know that he deserved his victory.
— Peter W. Schramm is the executive director of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and a professor of political science at Ashland University.