Analysis: Organization trumps momentum in Florida

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich just didn't have the money and organization to win in Florida.

Story highlights

  • Romney beat Gingrich among most groups of Florida voters
  • Gingrich won only the most ideologically conservative and evangelical or born-again voters
  • Romney's win was fueled in large part by his financial and organizational edge
  • Exit polls show signs Romney will have trouble winning over Gingrich's supporters

Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm once said ready money is the most reliable friend you can have in American politics. This week, Florida proved the rule.

Newt Gingrich's South Carolina momentum was nothing compared to Team Romney's more than $13 million ad buy in the Sunshine State.

What Gingrich bitterly called a carpet bombing was actually a tutorial in political fundamentals. For all the talk of an anti-establishment GOP revolution, it is still nearly impossible over the long run to beat a well-financed, well-run machine if you can't match it.

Gingrich can't.

The former Massachusetts governor and his allies outspent the former House speaker and his friends by a 5-1 margin on Florida's pricey airwaves, according to some accounts. They blanketed the state with reminders of Gingrich's exhausting past, from the now infamous $1.6 million Freddie Mac payment to the $300,000 ethics fine that contributed to his ouster from the House leadership in the late 1990s.

"Hammering his (Gingrich's) association with Freddie Mac was targeted negative campaigning at its best," said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller. "Gingrich's justification for his $1.6 million was weak and displayed his own credibility issues."

At the same time, Romney's campaign unleashed an army of surrogates -- including two former Republican presidential standard bearers -- who questioned Gingrich's fitness for office. They also unveiled a more aggressive debate strategy, negating the best weapon in Gingrich's arsenal.

Perhaps more importantly, they launched a massive early voting operation.

Over 630,000 early ballots helped lock in Romney's pre-South Carolina lead. Over one-third of Florida primary voters cast their ballots before Tuesday and backed Romney over Gingrich by a whopping 22-point margin, according to the American Research Group's final survey in the state.

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By Monday, the former speaker was sputtering and fuming, calling Romney a liar and Romney's campaign "pathetic."

"All you got to do is try to tear your opponent down to where they get smaller than you are," Gingrich said. "That's the Romney model. ... That's not my model."

Romney was amused. Gingrich "has been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other," the former governor said Monday. "You just watch it and shake your head. It has been kind of painfully revealing to watch."

The Florida exit polls were particularly revealing -- and painful -- for Team Gingrich. Romney beat the former speaker among both men and women, trouncing the former speaker among women by over 20 points. He won conservatives, moderates, and liberals. He carried voters across all income categories.

Romney beat Gingrich by 25 points among the plurality of voters who cited electability as the most important candidate quality. He gained significant ground among in the Latino community, carrying Hispanics by 23 points. In the 2008 Florida primary, Romney lost Hispanics to John McCain by 40 points.

Romney carried Cuban-Americans -- a vital constituency for Republicans in Florida this November -- by 24 points.

Gingrich, in turn, edged Romney only among the most hard-core elements of the GOP base -- voters who described themselves as very conservative and evangelical or born-again.

Looking ahead over the next month, the calendar gets no easier for Gingrich.

Florida's primary is followed by caucuses in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, and Maine. Romney is expected to do well in the traditionally low turnout caucuses because of his superior ground game. Ron Paul's enthusiastic supporters, however, could give Romney a run for his money.

Gingrich may have been competitive in Missouri's non-binding February 7 primary, but he failed to qualify for the ballot. Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries on February 28. Michigan is a virtual home state for Romney; Arizona (as well as Nevada) features a significant Mormon voting bloc.

Gingrich is also hurt by the absence of any more debates until February 22. The former speaker has relied heavily on the seemingly unending series of debates to keep his supporters energized and counter Romney's paid advertising advantage. If Gingrich's funding dries up, it's unclear how effectively he'll be able to remain in the public eye.

Regardless of what happens over the next few weeks, Gingrich has promised to stay in the race through the party's national convention in late August.

His campaign points out that only a small share of the 1,144 delegates needed to win have actually been chosen. New GOP rules this year require most of the states voting before April to allocate their delegates proportionally according to primary or caucus results -- a wrinkle that will significantly slow Romney's progress.

The former speaker is banking on those rules -- plus a strong performance in his native South -- to deny Romney a majority of delegates when the Republicans gather for their convention in Tampa.

"When you take all the non-Romney votes, it's very likely that at the convention there will be a non-Romney majority and maybe a very substantial one," Gingrich recently predicted. "My job is to convert that into a Gingrich majority."

If Gingrich carries through on his pledge and fights Romney to the end, a critical question will be much Romney could be damaged for the coming general election fight against Obama. History offers a mixed answer. Gerald Ford was substantially weakened by his down-to-the-wire contest with Ronald Reagan in 1976. Four years later, Jimmy Carter was bruised by his lengthy battle with Ted Kennedy.

In 2008, however, Obama did not appear to be hurt at all by Hillary Clinton's challenge, which lasted until the final contests in June. Democrats knew they would make history regardless -- either by choosing a woman or an African-American as their standard-bearer. The overwhelming majority of Clinton's supporters embraced Obama in the end.

Right now, the level of vitriol in the GOP race is raising serious questions about Republicans' ability to do the same. Nearly 40% of Florida voters on Tuesday said they'd like to see someone new in the race. Over half of Gingrich's voters said they would not be satisfied with Romney as the Republican nominee.

"What Romney and the GOP establishment have to figure out is what it will take to buy Newt off," Brown University's Schiller said.

Given the current tone of the campaign, it's not clear if there is -- or will be -- a reasonable answer to that question.

      Election 2012

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      A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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