February 1, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2008

As of late last night there were two principal views of the Republican primary and caucus season.

The first is that Mitt Romney, the GOP's heir apparent and nominee-in-waiting for over four years, has finally proved his mettle to the skeptics by slaying all the known dragons. Barring any surprises, he will coast through the next several primary and caucus states, then, quietly close the deal on Super Tuesday. His opponents will, in the meantime, run out of money and resources.

The second view--which now operates in the minority position of the two theories--is the Not-So-Fast view. Romney may have risen to the occasion in Florida through a combination of debate skill and negative advertising, and in part also because of a Newt Gingrich apparently ill-prepared for the role as front runner, but Romney still has a long road ahead. And the anti-Romney forces are many. And those forces have made it plain that they intend to continue this fight.

Has Romney proven, thanks to the highly diverse make-up of the Florida primary electorate, that he has finally broken the glass ceiling which held him back for four years?

A few hours before Sunshine State polls closed, Gingrich had his campaign people print up blue and white signs especially for the former Speaker's Orlando speech to the networks and to Floridians. The signs read "46 State to Go!" At the very beginning of his speech, which was notable for its lack of acknowledgements to his opponents, Gingrich said "I had these signs made up for the elite media!"

Forget the predictable red herring about the media. There at the very start of his remarks, Gingrich made it clear: Romney has a long road ahead, and Gingrich plans to carry the now-familiar message of insurrectionist conservatism to primary and caucus voters in those 46 states as long as there is a breath in his lungs.

By throwing down this gauntlet, Gingrich is challenging Romney, but also challenging himself and his followers.

Gingrich may be hoping that the idea of his campaign will self-motivate across the 46-state map--as it did in the days leading into South Carolina--catching fire upon his migration away from Florida, with the anti-Romney forces beginning to self-organize in the manner of Ron Paul's largely unstructured, informal matrix of volunteers and donors. Gingrich is betting that social conservatives, Tea Partiers, evangelicals and other feverish anti-Obama groups will coalesce around the central message that he, not Romney, is the true conservative and the right Republican to carry the fight to President Obama in the fall.

Speaking in Orlando Gingrich was forceful, passionate and, most of all, defiant. He spoke like a man unvanquished, and he had no intention of surrendering.

But in the meantime he has little to show for his second-place finish in Florida. Across the Sunshine State Romney handed Gingrich a shellacking, to use the words of CNN's John King. Gingrich had been visibly fatigued over the last few days, a direct result of the nasty, full-body-contact politics of South Carolina and Florida, and also as a result of Florida's expansive geography. Able to outspend Gingrich, Romney reached Florida voters more efficiently and effectively through his extensive use of television and radio dollars, saturating the airwaves and thus reducing the amount of time spent driving from one event to the next. Gingrich campaigned hard, but his shoe-leather approach depleted his time and energy.

In the end Florida Republicans gave Mitt Romney 46% of their votes, slightly more than all the votes for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum combined. Ron Paul, who had not campaigned actively in Florida, received 7% of the votes.

So now Gingrich's challenge becomes somewhat harder. With no televised debates on the boards for the near future, Gingrich has limited opportunity to advance his message to the wider audience of Republican voters in the dozen or so state primaries and caucuses scheduled for February and March. Nevada holds its caucuses on Saturday, February 4. Then, only a few days later on February 7, three more contests: caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, and a primary in Missouri.

Gingrich has acknowledged he enters Nevada at a deficit and that Romney has the advantage there. Rick Santorum, who skipped heavy campaigning in Florida, has also been working to produce a strong showing in Nevada and also Missouri. Ron Paul performs well in caucus states where his legions of volunteers and activists are able to inject themselves more effectively into the outcome than in primary states.

Still more potential danger for Gingrich can be found on February 28 when both Michigan and Arizona hold primaries. Michigan is an alternate home state for Romney where the son of George Romney is expected to do well; Arizona is home to John McCain, and McCain has not only endorsed Romney, but also made it plain he intends to campaign forcefully for Romney in McCain's home state.

Florida, as widely discussed in the weeks leading to the primary day, is a closer analog to the rest of the country than the first four contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Therefore what happens in Florida is generally viewed as a harbinger of the rest of the election map. And this is where Romney benefits the most from his Sunshine State victory.

A close look at the map, however, shows the clear, unmistakable line which divides Florida's two rival sensibilities: the socially and politically conservative north and panhandle, and the more moderate, ethnically and culturally diverse southern peninsular. Even among Republicans this geographic difference is substantial.

Romney swept all but five south and central Florida counties. Gingrich, conversely, won all but six counties in the northeast and panhandle areas. Duval County (Jacksonville), at the northeast fulcrum of this divide, was a near tie, with Romney edging out Gingrich by less than one percent, one of only two squeakers in a state with otherwise lopsided results.

But Romney won where it counted the most in a state with a winner-take-all delegate system--the former Massachusetts governor won in those counties with large populations: Hillsborough (Tampa), Miami-Dade, Orange (Orlando), Pinellas (St. Petersburg), Leon (Tallahassee), and Broward (Ft. Lauderdale). Romney's victories in some of these densely populated areas were blowouts. Romney won in Miami-Dade by 61% to Gingrich's 27%. Romney won in Palm Beach County by 54%.

Gingrich could claim a moral victory of sorts for his near sweep of the panhandle where voting patterns more closely resemble the large swath of counties in the middle-southeastern areas of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, areas where four years ago Mike Huckabee scored his best results. But many of these Florida counties are rural. Gingrich managed to edge out Romney in Alachua County (Gainesville) but only by about 120 votes. Likewise, in conservative Bay County (Panama City) Romney prevailed over Gingrich by a mere 150 votes out of almost 21,000 votes cast. The only county where Gingrich could claim a large population center was Escambia (Pensacola), where he won by 39% to Romney's 35%.

Gingrich enjoyed his own smashing wins in many north east and panhandle counties, such as Jackson County, Holmes County and Gulf County, but these are areas of small towns and sparse populations. Gingrich won in Dixie County, on the big bend along the Gulf of Mexico, by 55%, but his vote total was only 485 votes. Compare that to Hillsborough County and the nearly 90,000 votes cast by Republicans and you see where Romney's debate performances and big-budget advertising campaigns paid off.

All told, over a million and a half Florida Republicans went to the polls. This was a higher-than-usual turnout, despite the ongoing prognostications and hand-wringing sessions about the effects of the negative advertising.

If Gingrich is true to his words to his supporters in Orlando, Romney may indeed face a long road. On the other hand, it is difficult to see a long-term strategy for Gingrich, especially if his cash begins to run low. It is one thing to deliver a message that is both eloquent and defiant in the face of defeat, but it is quite another to face the hard challenges of the marathon road that leads across the country and, then back to Tampa in August.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review


Road Show is published each week by Thursday Review publications, copyright 2008