Politics & Policy

Five Lessons from the Sunshine State

Celebrating victory in Florida, January 31, 2012
What we learned from the Florida primary.

Five big lessons from Florida’s primary election results, where Mitt Romney won solidly with nearly half the vote and all 50 delegates at stake:

1) The gender gap returned with a vengeance: In the final days before the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, blindsided the candidate with the accusation that he had wanted an “open marriage.” The former speaker garnered roars of approval from a debate audience when he dressed down CNN moderator John King for starting off the evening with that topic. Some wondered whether that revelation, and the reminder of Gingrich’s three marriages, would hurt him in the contest, particularly among women.

#ad#By Saturday night, South Carolina women rejected the conventional wisdom that past marital woes would repel the fairer sex: Gingrich carried the largest share of the vote among women, with 38 percent to Romney’s 29 percent. His fans crowed that those issues had proven irrelevant in a time of runaway debt and lingering economic pain.

But subsequent general-election national polling showed a gargantuan gender gap, indicating that while South Carolina Republican women may not have had much of a problem with Gingrich, women in other states and outside the GOP did. An NBC/WSJ poll suggested that Gingrich has big problems with women, losing them 21 percent to 69 percent in a head-to-head matchup with President Obama. Rasmussen’s numbers weren’t much better — “Among women, the president leads Romney by 11 and Gingrich by 22” — and CNN showed an 18-point spread between Obama and Gingrich.

And Florida women did not warm to Gingrich as Palmetto State Republican women did: Romney won 51 percent among women, while Gingrich won 29 percent. Among men, Romney’s margin was much narrower, 41 percent to 36 percent.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, “asked by reporters on Sunday why a gender gap had appeared in recent Florida polls, Mr. Gingrich said: ‘I have no idea.’”

The “Ideas Candidate” might want to think about that.

2) The elderly abandoned Newt: Throughout the primaries, voters 65 and older have been Gingrich’s strongest demographic. Newt has won a larger share of voters in this age group than any other. He won 17 percent among this group in Iowa (second only to Romney), 14 percent in New Hampshire (third behind Romney and Jon Huntsman), and 47 percent in South Carolina (ahead by a wide margin).

Some of this may be because Gingrich is, at 69, the second oldest candidate in the field (Ron Paul is 76); some of this may be because elderly voters are most likely to remember Gingrich’s accomplishments in the mid-1990s — winning a GOP House majority, seeing budget surpluses, and reforming welfare; some of this may stem from the fact that Gingrich’s much-discussed criticism of a budget drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan as “right-wing social engineering” included the words, “I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors.”

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In 2008, one-third of Florida’s Republican primary electorate was age 65 or older. Romney lost that demographic; he garnered 31 percent of the vote, compared with 41 percent for John McCain.

This year, voters 65 and older made up an even larger portion of the electorate, at 36 percent. And yet in Florida, seniors preferred Mitt Romney and it wasn’t really that close: Romney won 51 percent and Gingrich won 34 percent.

3) The Early Bird Special: To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it gets late early down there. While it’s an exaggeration to say that Florida was over before it began, the window of opportunity for Newt Gingrich to win the state slid nearly closed within a week, and then shrank day by day.

#ad#This cycle, the early vote in Florida proved epic, with 293,760 Florida Republicans participating in the state’s early-voting opportunities. Another 338,753 absentee ballots were received by Florida’s officials. To put this in perspective, that’s 272,000 more than the total votes in Iowa and New Hampshire combined, and about 31,000 more than all of the votes cast in South Carolina.

In South Carolina, 56 percent of primary voters said they had decided “today” or in “the last few days.” In both Iowa and New Hampshire, that total was 46 percent.

Florida? Only 29 percent. Another 40 percent said they had decided whom to support before January. With so many early votes cast and so many Floridians deciding early, the Thursday-night debate and the drama of Rick Santorum’s daughter’s health may have been, if not moot, much less significant than they would have been in a state with more Election Day voters.

4) Romney ran stronger among evangelicals than the narrative suggests: We have heard, seemingly endlessly, that Romney would have deep-rooted problems with the key Republican demographic of voters who describe themselves as evangelical or born-again. Some have pointed to Romney’s Mormon faith as a key obstacle, but, as Byron York pointed out, polling indicates that Democrats and independents are actually more likely to express an unwillingness to vote for a Mormon.

In Iowa, Romney won only 14 percent among voters who describe themselves as evangelical. In New Hampshire, he won 31 percent among this group, but they made up only 21 percent of the GOP primary electorate. In South Carolina, where this group makes up 64 percent of the GOP primary electorate, Gingrich crushed him, 45 percent to 21 percent.

And then, in Florida . . . evangelicals warmed up to Romney. Not by a ton, but by enough to deny Gingrich a big win in a demographic that was central to Gingrich (and for that matter, Santorum as well). Gingrich won among self-identified white evangelical or born-again Christians, 39 percent to 36 percent. But Romney actually won the overall Protestant vote, 41 percent to 37 percent.

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5. The geography of a swing state matters: At the beginning of the week, Brad Todd — a GOP advertising strategist who helped Rick Scott win the 2010 Florida gubernatorial race — observed, “I think Newt would have to win the North Florida markets by 45-50,000 to keep it close . . . Romney can probably run up that much or more margin in the three markets in South Florida and I expect Romney to win the Tampa market too. Nassau, Duval, and Seminole counties will be key.”

#ad#Gingrich narrowly won Nassau County, by 42 percent to Romney’s 38 percent, but lost Seminole with 33 percent to 47 percent. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Romney appeared to be on the verge of a narrow 40 percent to 39 percent win in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville.

More broadly speaking, the panhandle and northern counties were supposed to be Gingrich’s firewall. They burned, as Gingrich barely won the region, 39 percent to 37 percent.

This is not the only time that the eyes of Republicans will focus on Florida; in late August, Republicans will hold their convention and nominate their candidate in Tampa. That convention may yet have more drama than the last few pageants.

One GOP consultant, not currently affiliated with any candidate, found the Florida campaign dispiriting, and predicted the exit-poll result of only 57 percent calling themselves “satisfied” with the GOP candidates.

“This primary season — and Florida — is not giving me any indication that it is preparing our eventual candidate for Obama,” laments the consultant, who worked on a 2008 presidential campaign. “There is no ‘steel on steel’ going on here. At a time when Republicans should have been well on the way to framing this election as a referendum on the Obama administration’s past three years, it continues to be a race about a mediocre governorship that should have been settled four years ago and a decade-old House leadership tenure that didn’t end particularly well either. No serious talk about our $15 trillion debt or how to reduce it. No frank discussions with the citizenry about the need to address entitlements — oh, wait, this is Florida, never mind! Instead, these guys are trying to do everything they can to make this a choice election for the electorate, and that is exactly what Team Obama wants . . . Perhaps that’s why some folks are seriously talking about finding ways to make this convention in Tampa a little more interesting and productive than most.”

He refused to elaborate on that last point.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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