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.”
Thirdly, Romney’s political work over the last four years played out to his advantage. He won over the Cuban Republican leadership in Miami, who had actively helped McCain to Romney’s significant detriment (over half the McCain margin in ‘08 came from Dade County), and effectively reversed his ‘08 showing there. He also won big in the critical Tampa-area counties and managed to keep Gingrich down in the conservative Jacksonville market. In succeeding in these areas, he took away any possible path for Gingrich.
Fourth, turnout was down from 2008 by as much as 15 percent. Top Florida GOP figures had been predicting turnout exceeding 2008, and based on early voting numbers, that never materialized. This allowed the work Romney did in the early weeks of the campaign to count for more and definitely played into his margin of victory. The fact that nearly 40 percent of GOP voters in exit polls said they were not happy with their field suggests the tone of the election may have contributed to lower turnout.
Finally, and most importantly, Romney absolutely swamped Gingrich on TV. Despite the claims that Gingrich’s Super PAC would spend $6 million in Florida, his television presence materialized so late in the week that the race was already over. The Romney spending advantage was nearly 5:1 and up until the closing days, Romney had aired 13,000 ads to only 200 by Gingrich. Romney completely dominated the narrative, and by the time Gingrich could respond, he was out of air.
Now forget about Tuesday’s primary, because November will be a different animal altogether. Florida’s electorate this fall will be significantly more diverse, though some of the same rules will apply. To win Florida, you need to win the counties between Daytona, Orlando and Tampa (the I-4 corridor) and you need to win Hispanics—a population generally split between Cubans and Puerto Ricans.
It will be close between President Obama and, in all probability, Mitt Romney. Between 1992 and 2008, we’ve won two, they’ve won two, and we had one that was essentially a tie.
In total, nearly 33 million votes were cast for president in Florida over those five elections with only 57,000 votes separating the two major parties—a margin of just 0.17 percent.
That’s close enough to trigger a recount.
Steve Schale is a fifteen-year veteran of Florida politics. Most recently, he served as the state director of the 2008 Obama/Biden Campaign and as a senior advisor to Alex Sink for Governor. He runs a small firm, Schale Strategies, out of Tallahassee.