Like Newt Gingrich in South Carolina two weeks ago, Mitt Romney got the double-digit victory in Florida he needed with his back against the wall. And just like South Carolina did, Florida has also taught us some lessons going forward.
1. Latino voters are ready for an honest conversation about illegal immigration.
For months now Gingrich has been talking about the American people not being willing to deport long-standing families of illegals who have been in the country for 20 years or more. Romney, who used to be pro-amnesty, moved to the right of Gingrich on the immigration issue during the Florida primary without coming across as threatening or incendiary. In the end, Florida Latino voters went strong for Romney, proving that perhaps the party establishment hand-wringing the past few years over the loss of Latino voters due to getting tough on illegal immigration is at least a little overblown.
2. The establishment plays to win at all costs.
There are certainly things in Gingrich’s past that his primary opponents can exploit to their favor should they wish to, but the Republican Party establishment was so desperate to have their proxy win the Florida Primary they were actually willing to bypass most of that and flat-out lie to win instead. The party establishment made the false claim Gingrich was guilty of ethics violations as Speaker, when he was actually exonerated. The party establishment made the phony and easily refutable claim Gingrich was some sort of anti-Reagan RINO in the 1980s, even taking a speech Gingrich gave back in the day out of context when he was criticizing Reagan for not being hard-right enough.
Sarah Palin’s observation that the establishment is willing to do things to conservatives they’d never do to Democrats is spot on. Until conservatives are willing to answer in-kind they’re likely to keep losing primaries to the Republicrat establishment.
3. Professionalism trumps activism.
Gingrich was drawing crowds on the ground in Florida in the thousands, including one event some long-time sunshine state observers said was the largest crowd for a candidate they’d ever seen. However, the Romney campaign weathered that storm and a post-South Carolina Gingrich bump with its superior organization. It was estimated about a third of the Florida Primary vote was accounted for before the outcome of the South Carolina primary was known, which meant Gingrich was going to need to win on election day by 5-8 points to compensate for it.
That’s tough to do when the Romney campaign was blitzkrieging the airwaves of a television primary with more than $15 million in ads targeting Gingrich. Romney’s win in Florida wasn’t just about the establishment going scorched earth on conservatives. Credit should also be given to the professional Romney campaign apparatus that put together the winning formula and executed it.
4. Gingrich needs to go back on offense.
Former NBA great Charles Barkley once famously said in a Nike commercial, “I ain’t in this league to play defense.” And with Gingrich slipping from his perch as frontrunner for a second time in Florida just as he did in November prior to the Iowa Caucuses, it’s obvious Newt is not either.
Gingrich simply doesn’t play defense well, and it’s been a key reason why he’s been humbled twice this campaign after emerging the frontrunner. On the other hand, when Gingrich is assertive, bold, and playing offense he’s the best candidate in the field. He needs to remember the prevent defense only prevents you from winning, and stay aggressive.
Rick Santorum is at his best attacking Romney. Romney is at his best attacking Gingrich. Gingrich is at his best attacking the media and the issues. Gingrich needs less conversation about Romney’s attack ads and more conversation about the issues and defeating Obama.
5. Romney still has plenty of problems with conservatives.
Almost one-fourth of Romney’s vote total came from Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Broward counties. The reason that matters is because it’s highly unlikely any Republican nominee is going to beat Obama in those counties this fall. Meanwhile, Gingrich won more counties in Florida than Romney did, especially the conservative ones. 38% of Romney’s own voters in Florida said in exit polling they’d prefer to have a new candidate. Romney lost the conservative counties in Florida he won going against John McCain four years ago. To put those numbers in perspective, Romney was able to win a double-digit victory in Florida with only 41% of the conservative vote.
Which leads to our final point…
6. Because of those problems with conservatives, Romney’s path to the nomination is problematic.
The Republican Party is a conservative southern party, and the northern Florida counties Gingrich won far more represent the rest of the south than the counties Romney won. A candidate of Romney’s profile is unlikely to fare well in the south, especially with a southern candidate like Gingrich on the ballot.
According to my delegate count, there are at least 600 delegates in states between Texas and West Virginia that Romney will likely not win. Without those delegates it is unlikely Romney can obtain the 1144 delegates required to clinch the nomination prior to the convention. Because of Gingrich’s high name ID, he also doesn’t need much money to win states like Alabama, for example, which have just as many delegates as Romney won in Florida on Tuesday night.
Keep in mind that four years ago Mike Huckabee won Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, West Virginia, and Louisiana after he was no longer a threat to win the nomination, and almost won Missouri and Oklahoma as well. If Huckabee as a less-known and less-funded southern candidate could beat an Arizona RINO like McCain in these southern states, how do you think a better-funded and better-known southerner like Gingrich might do against a Massachusetts RINO?
If you project out what Romney would have to do to win the nomination without all those southern delegates, he will have to virtually sweep the rest of the map. Except the rest of the map features at least 15 states that allocate delegates proportionally, which doesn’t leave much margin for error because Romney needs all the winner-take-all states outside the south he can get.
Bottom line: if conservatives want to use Gingrich to stop Romney from becoming the nominee and fight this out at the convention, they most definitely can.