As I write this Mitt Romney is the declared winner in Florida and leads Newt Gingrich 46%-32% with 95% of precincts reporting. Romney looks to have regained his mojo after South Carolina and with a Caucus in friendly NV this Saturday looks likely to start putting together a string of new victories. Digging into the specific numbers coming out of Florida can give us some new details on the shape of the GOP race. Clearly Romney is in control but did he connect with the groups has struggled with?
Courtesy of the CNN exit poll we find that Romney reversed many of his weaknesses from South Carolina. He won men 41%-36% and handedly won women 52%-28%. The heavily courted Hispanic vote (14% of the GOP electorate) broke heavily for Romney 54%-29%. Romney won whites 45%-32%.
Reversing two trends Romney won among every major age group. He won 18-29 year olds (who went for Paul in IA, SC and NH) with 41%, 30-44 year olds with 41%, 45-64 with 44% and dominated among those over 65 with 51%. Gingrich had traditionally done well among older voters, especially in South Carolina, but not here.
Romney won every level of educated voters at an almost universal level of 45%-48%. Among those who never attended college he got 47%, 45% of some college voters, and 48% and 46% of college and post-grad voters. Romney has struggled, especially in IA and SC, with non-college educated voters. Overall the GOP electorate was split 50% with college degrees and 50% without and Romney won both resoundingly.
Romney dominated every income group. His strong support came from those making 200,000 or above with 60% but he also received strong pluralities of the vote among all other income brackets. Romney has struggled among lower-income GOP voters but receieved well over 40% of those earning less than $30,000 a year.
The one trend Romney could not reverse is the fact that very conservative voters simply do not like him. Voters who identified as “very conservative backed Gingrich over Romney 41%-30%. Yet for Romney hitting 30% among very conservative voters is his best showing yet. Even more, among voters who identified as somewhat conservative he dominated with 52%. Among moderate/liberal voters Romney won with 59%. The GOP electorate was as conservative as it was in SC (69%) yet Romney this time overall won conservatives 41%-37% over Gingrich.
Other trends Romney reversed were that he was competitive among evangelicals, losing 41%-37% and even won Tea Party supporters 41%-37%. In South Carolina Romney lagged behind Gingrich on most important issues. Not this time. Among voters who placed the most emphasis on the economy or budget deficit Romney won 41% and 52%. On abortion he lost to Gingrich, showcasing his struggle to appeal to very conservative voters.
Romney also turned around the surprising results of votes based on candidate qualities in SC. In SC voters who placed emphasis on the candidate qualities “Can defeat Obama,” and “Strong moral character” backed Gingrich. This a turnaround from IA and NH. Well voters who placed the most emphasis on those qualities backed Romney with 58% and 46% respectively. But on the “True conservative” vote Romney got a mere 11%. On the issue of “Right experience” Romney narrowly lost to Gingrich 45%-40%.
So what can we glean from these results. First that Romney has made inroads with conservatives but his moderate record on social issues continues to dog him. Most conservatives and Republicans recognize he is a moderate and this makes it hard to appeal to segments of the GOP. Second, Romney has turned around many of the groups he lost in South Carolina. He even did better among groups he lost in Florida such as evangelicals compared to South Carolina. Third, Romney dominated among major metric. Education, age, income, it did not matter. Romney won them all. Fourth, as expected Gingrich won North Florida handedly but due to strong support from Hispanics Romney won South Florida and just about everywhere else. The way North Florida voted indicates that Gingrich could find support in the rural, strong evangelical South on Super Tuesday. Due to geographic and cultural ties the North of Florida votes like the Southern US while the rest of Florida is split between conservative, liberal, and moderate elements.
Romney had a great night and Gingrich a miserable one. For Santorum and Paul the results were as expected. Both pulled up shop on the state last week and vowed to fight on in future primaries and caucuses. Both held campaign events in NV tonight. But the results between Gingrich and Romney showcase just how much of an advantage Romney has over Gingrich. Romney and his allies outspent similar Gingrich groups by an order of 7-1. Romney’s campaign ran blistering negative campaign ad after ad. And despite Santorum and Paul pulling up shop last week in the state Gingrich could not unite the conservative base against Romney.
Sure Gingrich can fight on. But with both Paul and Santorum still in the race the “Very conservative” element of the party will be split three ways. Moderate to conservative voters now look likely to back Romney more often than not based on NH and Florida results. Than the Gingrich camp has to deal with the fact that unlike the Paul or Romney camps they are ill-equipped to fight a national race. Gingrich, likewise Santorum, cannot go winless in the month of February and expect to do well on Super Tuesday, regardless of religious or geographic advantages.
Romney’s crushing advantage has always been his financial advantage. In Florida it was decisive. Nationally it will be as well. Romney is now firmly in control of the GOP race and could run the table in February with caucuses in NV and ME on the 4th, CO and MN on the 7th and primaries in Michigan and AZ later in the month. If so, Romney could generate such momentum by Super Tuesday he could win in states that are downright hostile to him. If so, it is bye, bye to the “Alternative Romney candidate.”
Note: GOP turnout in FL was far below expectations and has to worry GOP operatives. Unlike SC, where GOP turnout exceeded 2008 levels by over 20%, GOP turnout in Florida was a dismal 250,000 votes less than 2008. Republicans eager to turn to the general election have to worry about these numbers among their base in a large swing state. A lot of factors could have affected this, negative ads, weak candidates, etc. but the end result is still the same. And in a close race turnout will be key.