Well, that’s over – and that would be the Florida primary on the very last day of January this year. Many are just glad the month is over, and a few of us don’t think much of Florida – low, flat, always hot and muggy and a little seedy around the edges, with that bizarre Disneyworld place and all the retirees from up north, at the local Red Lobster early each evening for the Early Bird Special. Florida is where you go to get all leathery in the sun and then die. The one hit sit-com about the place, Golden Girls, probably didn’t help the local tourist industry – four caustic women well past their prime trading quips about their ironically empty lives. But the demographics there are odd – lots of old folks from elsewhere. And those very old people drive – large vaguely tan Buicks for the most part – so hide. But the Republicans do have to choose someone to run against Obama and this primary was worth fifty delegates, so they had their vote. And that should be noted, as it might have something to do with who becomes our next president. Or it might not.
Assuming the expected collapse of the Greek economy doesn’t plunge all of Europe into full-blown depression, ruining our own still fragile economy as collateral damage, and Obama doesn’t shoot a puppy on live television, Obama may win a second term easily. If things get worse he may not. And that would open the door for the one Republican left standing. And, at this moment, who that might be seems a bit clearer:
Mitt Romney rolled to victory in the Florida primary on Tuesday, dispatching an insurgent threat from Newt Gingrich and reclaiming his dominant position as he urged Republicans to rally behind his quest to capture the party’s presidential nomination.
The commanding victory by Mr. Romney offered a forceful response to the concerns that were raised about his candidacy only 10 days ago after a stinging loss to Mr. Gingrich in the South Carolina primary. It stripped Mr. Gingrich of his momentum and raised questions about his effort to persuade Republicans of his electability.
And Romney was upbeat:
“A competitive primary does not divide us,” Mr. Romney told his cheering supporters. “It prepares us. And we will win.” He urged Republicans to focus on defeating President Obama, declaring, “I stand ready to lead this party and to lead this nation.”
But nothing is sewn up:
The outcome of the Florida primary promised to reorder the field of Republican candidates. As Mr. Gingrich pledged to fight on, saying that he would resist attempts to drive him from the race, he faced a newly aggressive challenge from Rick Santorum, who finished a distant third here.
But this New York Times account does stress that Romney did just fine “across nearly all segments of the Republican electorate” – and that Florida is a bit more like the country at large – not all white-born-again angry evangelicals like in Iowa, or flinty New England libertarians like in New Hampshire, and not primarily Neo-Confederates still angry that the wrong side won the Civil War, like in South Carolina. Florida has a bit of everything, and Romney beat Gingrich by fifteen points. For a boutique candidate like Gingrich, who knows how to further enrage a specific enraged subset of voters, there was no way to win Florida. He’s no good at going broad – he’s too specific. And Romney never is, about anything.
But Gingrich said he could do that too – “We are going to contest every state, and we are going to win and we will be the nominee in August.” And he pointedly did not congratulate Romney for his victory. He didn’t even call him, as is traditional in these contests.
This is just a nasty business. Rick Santorum, who came in a distant third, gave a speech where he said Gingrich had his chance and he blew it. And Santorum said he intended to emerge as the “true conservative” alternative to Romney, not the hapless Gingrich, and Santorum began running new commercials in Nevada and Colorado comparing Gingrich to the evil Obama. Ouch.
But Mitt pretended none of that was happening:
“My leadership will end the Obama era and begin a new era of American prosperity,” Mr. Romney said, looking beyond his Republican rivals. As a crowd cheered his name, he added: “When we gather here seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.”
Well, he did win this one. That’s the sort of thing you say when you win, and the Times notes that he won big:
His support in urban areas with concentrations of affluent and older Republicans was enough to overcome strong Tea Party supporters, evangelicals and self-described “very conservative” voters who have generally coalesced around Mr. Gingrich.
And this was a closed primary – only Republicans could vote – so he won his party this night. No random folks had jumped in to skew the results. So maybe this means something:
The outcome raised questions about Mr. Gingrich’s strength to proceed. If there was one part of Florida with a counter-message, it was in the panhandle, which resembles the nation’s South. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney won equal support there, according to surveys of voters leaving polling stations – giving hope to Mr. Gingrich hope for the series of Southern contests on Super Tuesday, March 6, and pause to Mr. Romney, who struggled for traction in South Carolina.
That’s a slim hope. When you’re tied with a Mormon who used to be the governor up there in liberal Massachusetts, and who created a universal healthcare plan for that state, you’re in trouble, at it showed:
After spending the week under intensive attack from Mr. Romney and the forces supporting him, the enthusiasm that swept Mr. Gingrich into Florida largely collapsed. Surveys of voters leaving polls found that he had the same percentage of Tea Party supporters, evangelical or very conservative voters that he had in South Carolina, roughly 4 in 10 – but, in a state like Florida, it was not enough to even put him close to Mr. Romney.
And there were all the negative ads – and Romney outspent Gingrich five-to-one on those. That had a lot to do with Gingrich’s collapse. And now all Romney has to do is manage things:
When Mr. Romney’s aides were confident enough of a victory to discuss the landscape beyond Tuesday night, they started deliberating over what could best be described as their “Newt containment strategy.”
It is the delicate task of keeping one foot firmly planted on his back and the other free to move toward an anticipated general election battle with Mr. Obama.
Advisers to Mr. Romney have made it clear that they take seriously Mr. Gingrich’s promise to stay in the race until the nominating convention that takes place here in August, given the persistence he has shown throughout his campaign.
But containing him will require a delicate balance between giving him too much – or too little – attention at any given moment.
And there’s the issue of the schedule now:
The fast-approaching lull in the campaign – with no debates scheduled until Feb. 20 and a 17-day break following the caucuses next week in Colorado and Minnesota – is not expected to help Mr. Gingrich’s less-financed campaign. He has been sustained by the free attention he has drawn in debates and the news coverage of upcoming election nights.
And Mr. Romney’s aides say they know that to attack him regularly during such slack periods could simply give him the oxygen of conflict to help him raise money. Yet they also ignore him at their own peril, having twice presumed him politically dead only to see him rise up against Mr. Romney again, most devastatingly in South Carolina.
And Steve Kornacki says the Romney folks really should worry about Gingrich:
Gingrich can probably maintain his relevance through all of this simply by pointing to the early weeks of March, when the Old Confederacy will finally get its say. The basic cultural and demographic characteristics that defined the South Carolina GOP electorate – heavy on Yankee-phobic, Tea Party-friendly conservative evangelicals – will be present in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana when they vote in March. Gingrich can credibly sell those contests as the ultimate test of his “bold Reagan conservative” versus “timid Massachusetts moderate” framing of the GOP race, making it difficult to ignore him between now and then.
If he were then to win those states, all of the talk about Romney as a fatally flawed candidate for the Tea Party era would restart and the race would almost certainly last all the way to the GOP convention. It would be the modern equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s upset win in the 1976 North Carolina primary, which stopped Gerald Ford from putting away with the GOP race and triggered a late string of Reagan wins that kept the nomination from being settled before Kansas City.
Everything this man says is a lie. … The president Romney is describing does not exist. Obama is demonizing and denigrating every sector of the economy? That is a pure lie. As is the repeated lie that Obama is an appeaser. Has Romney understood what has happened to the Iranian economy these past few months? Does he think Osama bin Laden thinks he was appeased?
Let me just say right now: this speech is the most dishonest, manipulative, disgusting series of lies I’ve heard in a very long time. And its core premise: that the president hates this country, whereas Romney believes in it. As I said: disgusting. I’m with Newt on this. The man will say anything to gain power.
And on the Democratic side there’s a bit of smugness:
Firebrand ex-Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL), running to reclaim his seat in 2012, told TPM that Mitt Romney’s fans shouldn’t get too excited about his Tuesday win. The real issue was Gingrich’s lousy campaign.
“I think that in the end the Not-Romney vote was unwilling to coalesce around Newt Gingrich,” Grayson said. “His flaws, politically and personally, become more obvious as it went on and it’s a personal rejection of him. There’s tremendous reservation about Romney – the majority are not happy with the choices left.”
Either way, he said, the GOP is leaving Florida worse than it arrived.
And his assessment seems logical:
I think there has been lasting damage. I think that when Newt Gingrich parades around the country saying Mitt Romney is a liar, and Mitt Romney parades around country saying Newt Gingrich is a liar, the conclusion most people draw is they’re both liars.
Grayson says Romney’s ongoing tax return issues are his biggest problem now and Romney would have a tough time repairing his brand with general election voters anyway, given how Gingrich hammered him. But then they both have their problems:
Newt’s negatives are astronomical – they’re approaching his name recognition at this point – and Romney’s are also very high. I doubt we’ll see them go down. Mitt Romney has been exposed, like a character out of Orphan Annie, Daddy Warbucks, as an enormously wealthy person out of touch with ordinary Americans who simply wants to be president, as far as we can tell, because he wants to be President.
And there is also the gender gap, as this poll before the primary showed that among women, Romney was winning 49-29 and among men by only 37 to 33. And this exit poll finds that only about half of women report holding a positive opinion of Newt Gingrich as a person, compared with about 6 in 10 men. And Romney won among women by 51-29 percent. That’s something to throw in the mix too.
Still Romney’s victory was sound, as Daniel Larison notes here:
Romney improved on McCain’s winning result by eleven points. He seems to have brought together a coalition of old Romney, McCain, and Giuliani voters, led by huge margins among “somewhat” conservative voters (51-32), moderates (59-20), women (51-29), and Latinos (53-30), and he trailed Gingrich only among “very conservative” voters and strict pro-lifers. According to the exit poll, “somewhat” conservative and moderate/liberal voters account for 67% of the electorate. Small wonder that Romney was always the favorite to win Florida…
So, can Newt really win it all? See Will Wilkinson:
Gingrich’s main challenge is to offer conservatives a plausible story about why his continuing to fight makes defeating Obama more likely. It’s a tall order, but Newt’s a first-class bullshitter.
This is a mess, but then Romney did say that a competitive primary does not divide us – it prepares us and we will win. But the Atlantic’s Ron Fournier thinks that’s a bit wrong:
Don’t buy the spin from his camp that a drawn-out campaign makes for a better general-election candidate. Romney’s team likes to point to Obama, who emerged from a long campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the presidency in 2008, but there are two problems with that thinking. First, the Obama-Clinton contest, although brutal, was not as personally negative as Romney-Gingrich. Second, of the five protracted GOP nominating fights in the 20th century, all but one – which Dwight D. Eisenhower won in 1952 – led to a Republican defeat.
And Peter Lawler argues that nothing was really settled in Florida:
Newt is still tied with Mitt nationwide, and Romney remains stuck in the twenties. Polls posted today out of Missouri and Ohio show Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum in close to a three-way tie. (Romney isn’t leading in either case.) Will Santorum poll significantly better in the ethnic, Catholic, more industrial states of the Midwest? Certainly possible. Could a protracted campaign keep anyone from getting a majority of the delegates? Unlikely but not impossible.
And can Romney win the South? Steve Kornacki has his doubts:
The former Massachusetts governor’s poll numbers have been worse in Dixie than anywhere else in the country. And while there hasn’t been extensive polling in individual Southern states, there were signs late last year that Gingrich, a nominal Southerner who represented Georgia in the House for 20 years, enjoyed unusual strength in the region. In early and mid-March, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana will all vote; Gingrich may see in these states an opportunity to recapture his South Carolina magic. (Virginia, which votes March 6, would also seem a natural Gingrich target – if he’d qualified for its ballot.)
This could go on a long time, and even Sarah Palin is rooting for Newt:
Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said that Mitt Romney’s aggressive campaign spending in the Sunshine State allowed him to buy a “false narrative” that propelled him to victory in Florida’s pivotal primary.
“I think that with $17 million purchasing some ads and some false narrative it was very, very difficult for Newt Gingrich and the other candidates to counter that bombardment of advertisements,” Palin said Tuesday night on Fox News.
Palin cautioned that negative campaigning could ultimately hurt the Republican nominee in the general election.
Do tell. But her solution is for Mitt Romney to just shut up – and let the True Newt speak for himself. But that’s very retro these days. The game has changed. So we have a mess where the two candidates will each prove, conclusively, that the other guy is awful. It’s too late now to reverse the effect of the massive mutual sabotage that has gone on. They each said the other is awful, and proved it – so we believe it.
And there will be no White Knight who rushes in and saves the day either as Alex Pareene explains here:
Newt Gingrich is doing everything in his power to ensure that Mitt Romney will have a difficult time winning the number of delegates necessary to ensure the nomination, but even if Gingrich manages to make good on his threat to drag this out, math has already effectively eliminated the possibility that someone else less insane could take advantage of his work. And the candidates credible enough to make a serious “deadlocked convention” play would be too sensible to attempt it, because the result of denying Romney the nomination would be utter chaos.
Yes it really is that much of a clusterfuck at this point. But I have to say that Romney’s last Florida debate performance and the ruthlessness with which he has tried to dispatch Gingrich this week have impressed me. He has the overkill-type ambition to win.
But why? That’s a question to which I don’t have an answer.
No one really does know what Romney wants to do in office, just that he wants the office. Of course Gingrich has a million ideas about what he wants to do in office, big ideas – but they change every few minutes, as something else occurs to him and he’s off in another direction. He’s a bit flighty that way. He says it’s just his extraordinary brilliance. But that sort of extraordinary brilliance isn’t exactly comforting. If he were the president we might invade Finland, for the goat cheese, or not. America may not be ready for him. America may never be ready for him. He’s a tad mercurial – or really, really irritating – or dangerous. You’d avoid him at a cocktail party.
As for where this leaves the Republicans now, in the New Yorker, George Packer compares the Republicans in 2012 to the Democrats in 1972:
McGovern’s debacle forced the Democratic Party to find its way back from the ideological wilderness – from being the party of delegate quotas and “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Every successful Democrat after 1972, from Carter to Clinton to Obama, has had at least one foot in the party’s center. A Gingrich rout in November might have the same effect on Republicans – it might drive their party back toward the center, and toward mental health, in 2016. But if Romney wins the nomination and loses the election, the party will continue down into the same dark hole where Palin, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Santorum, and now Gingrich all lurk. So a sane Republican has a terrible dilemma, today in Florida and beyond. That’s what happens when political parties are captured by a minority of fervent believers.
But at least the Florida thing is over. And now we don’t have to think about that odd place again – or at least until late August, when the Republicans open their convention in Tampa. See you at the Red Lobster for the Early Bird Special.