For a brief moment, it appeared Newt Gingrich had a path to win in Florida. Polls taken in the aftermath of his South Carolina victory showed an immediate surge, with some giving him with as much as a nine-point lead over Romney.
But his momentum collapsed just as fast as it rose, and by Election Day, the only suspense remaining was over what Romney’s margin of victory would be.
Truth be told, the race ended pretty much where it was at the start of the year. Romney, who finished a very respectable second in 2008, kept his foot on the gas over the last four years. He continued to grow his base of political and donor support, and invested both his time and resources here. Moreover, while Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry (remember them?) attempted to build operations in Florida, Romney was the only candidate to stay.
By the time the calendar turned to 2012, Team Romney was fully engaged here. His Super PAC was advertising and his very competent Florida team was communicating with the several hundred thousand Floridians who had requested an absentee ballot.
Romney’s investment was paying off. After Iowa, polls had him up 15-points in Florida. Many pundits—me included—and certainly more than one local TV station owner, wondered aloud whether Florida would be even meaningful.
So how did Florida expose Gingrich’s weaknesses so quickly?
First, even in the Gingrich surge, public polling showed huge vulnerabilities. Take the Quinnipiac University Poll—released a few days after South Carolina—that showed the race in a dead heat with some evidence of a Gingrich surge. That same poll showed Romney with a large advantage in favorability, and more importantly, a significant double-digit advantage on the issues of electability and the economy—the issues that exit polling found to be the most important.
Secondly, Gingrich needed to have a great week, and by all accounts, he had a terrible one. While Romney looked sharper, Gingrich looked rattled in the debates and just as poor on the stump. He had virtually no message, other than the much-parodied “Moon Colony.” As one Florida observer suggested to me, “Gingrich was running around the state like a kid running through the house with scissors. Mitt Romney was smart enough to get out of the way.”