In the end it wasn’t even close. Mitt Romney’s decisive win in Florida made the following clear:
• Organization and money count. Romney and his Super PAC outspent Gingrich 4 to 1 and they also were better able to organize an early get out the vote operation. You can have a good message but if you don’t have cash and the people to execute it, then you’re in trouble. Romney has plenty of cash and plenty of people to help him.
• Negative advertising works. Voters complain about it but most of them are influenced by it.
• Romney can get feisty if he needs to. Nearly 10 days ago Romney was behind here in Florida because of Gingrich’s momentum coming out of South Carolina. The campaign saw the potential for his campaign to begin unraveling fast. Yet Romney came out swinging at the two Florida debates. We saw a very different Romney. He was very aggressive as he hit Newt repeatedly. Quite frankly, a little more of that would serve him well throughout the campaign
As far as the evangelical vote, Gingrich barely won it over Romney (38 percent to 36 percent). What we’re seeing is that even though evangelicals seem to prefer Gingrich and Santorum over Romney, they also want to beat Obama just like every other Republican. Therefore electability and competency matter to evangelicals, too.
Plus, there are plenty of evangelicals who will vote for Romney based on what they believe is his ability to turn the economy around. Also, don’t forget Romney comes across as wholesome with his “Leave it to Beaver” family, so that plays well with evangelicals, too.
So far in this primary season, what we’ve seen is that the evangelical vote has been a little all over the place depending on the state. There really hasn’t been one candidate who has been able to lock down a strong majority of evangelical support. Look at the numbers below:
• Santorum 33%
• Paul 19%
• Gingrich 14%
• Perry 14%
• Romney 14%
• Bachmann 5%
• Romney 31%
• Santorum 23%
• Paul 21%
• Gingrich 13%
• Huntsman 9%
• Perry 1%
• Gingrich 44%
• Santorum 22%
• Romney 21%
• Paul 13%
• Gingrich 38%
• Romney 36%
• Santorum: 19%
• Paul 5%
These numbers suggest that evangelicals are sophisticated voters who look at a variety of factors when going to the polls. Each of these remaining candidates has strengths but they also have flaws when seen through an evangelical prism.
For example, if evangelicals saw Santorum as a guy who could really beat Obama, then his numbers would be way higher. If Gingrich had less baggage, his numbers would be even bigger. And if Romney would engage the evangelical community more rather than tepidly dance around them like they have cooties (he’s hardly done any evangelical type events), then he would have a lot more evangelical support than he does now.
So where does this race go from? This will be a good month for Romney (read: Michigan and Nevada) and also for Ron Paul (read: Nevada, Colorado). Both of these candidates did well in those states in 2008 and should do so again.
Romney’s challenge will be to ride that fine line between driving an optimistic message that focuses on the future and not letting up on Gingrich. Romney would love to pivot to a General Election strategy, but Gingrich has come back from the dead twice and Romney doesn’t want to see it again a third time.
As for Gingrich, his path is long and arduous but there is at least a path. He needs to somehow convince Santorum to get out by March 6 (good luck with that) and hope and pray that Sheldon Adelson (Gingrich’s Super PAC money friend) comes up with even more series dough.
With some southern states voting as part of the March 6 Super Tuesday, there is some hope for Gingrich. But he has to somehow make sure that the “Romney is inevitable” drumbeat doesn’t get too loud in this month of February. If it does, the money will dry up quickly.
For Rick Santorum, the strategy is simple. Hope Newt implodes and then be ready to catch the falling debris as the Romney alternative.