Although Gingrich gave him a big scare, Mitt Romney won Florida decisively yesterday: Romney took 46.4%, Gingrich 31.9%, Santorum 13.3%, and Ron Paul 7%.
The dominant narrative is that this “restores momentum” to Romney. Maybe. Nevertheless, as I have pointed out before (see Why Florida’s Not The State To Watch from January 23), we had every reason to believe Romney would win Florida no matter what. Romney has for many months viewed Florida as the most important primary for him, and has been working for months, maybe a year, on winning that state. He had a large staff and organization in place there, had already spent millions and paid numerous visits there, months and months before the primary. Furthermore, Florida’s a closed primary, meaning only people already registered as Republicans were allowed to vote–meaning no surge of energized, normally-apathetic voters was likely to happen, as was the case in South Carolina. Florida is centrist, largely older and more mature, and the Republican voters there are pretty “establishment” oriented. Furthermore, Romney workers had already spent months locating potential absentee voters and helping them to fill in ballots, which we can safely assume mostly were already cast for Romney well before yesterday.
Many observers are calling this a huge victory for Romney but I’m not so sure; I think if he’d lost this one, it would have been a huge blow because he had every advantage. He will not have quite so many advantages in future races, and Gingrich did very well despite having much less time, money, and organization in the sunshine state. A solid second place finish is a signal to potential Gingrich voters that donating money to him is not necessarily a wasted effort–and Gingrich already has a pretty solid organization built up in Michigan, which Gingrich announced some time ago he plans to put a lot of resources into winning. Michigan, unlike Florida, is an mostly-open primary (any registered voter can ask for a Republican ballot) and thus Gingrich could theoretically pull off the same kind of victory he did in South Carolina, pulling in a large number of discontented independents and people who normally don’t bother voting in primaries. I continue to believe that it is Michigan that will tell us more than Florida about whether Gingrich can sustain a long-term and serious challenge or not.
One source of worry for the Romney campaign should be that turnout was significantly down this year from 2008 among Republican primary voters in Florida. That is the exact opposite of South Carolina, where a surge of independent and normally-apathetic voters turned up and broke records for primary participation. South Carolina’s more-or-less open primary allowed that to happen; Florida’s closed primary did not, and it appears that even registered Republicans were not very enthused about Romney; Romney burned through millions of dollars to attack and defeat Gingrich (successfully), but he had to work hard to do it, and it’s not clear that in upcoming open primaries that this will be as effective for him.
One thing that will likely cheer Romney is that Rick Santorum shows no sign at all of dropping out. While some potential Santorum backers would vote for Romney, it’s virtually certain that more of them would choose Gingrich if Gingrich became the clear “I’m not Romney” alternative. Indeed, Santorum’s continuing presence would appear to be a bigger challenge for Gingrich than coming in second in Florida did. A strong second in Florida is more than most would have predicted for the former Speaker just a few months ago.
(This item cross-posted to The Moderate Voice.)
*Update*: Larry Sabato, always the careful researcher, seems to pretty much see it as I do. Although he doesn’t single out Michigan as crucial for Gingrich, as I do.