TAMPA, FL - Mitt Romney claimed a massive prize tonight, winning Florida's closed (registered Republicans only) primary election by a robust double-digit margin. The former Massachusetts governor battled a faltering voice during his victory address, which congratulated his GOP opponents, predicted a united Republican Party in the fall, and laid into President Obama's warped vision for the country and failed policies:
Romney went "big picture" tonight, drawing major contrasts between himself and the man he hopes to defeat in November. Echoing some of the lines from his New Hampshire speech, he sought to claim the mantle of prohibitive frontrunner. "I stand ready to lead this party" and the nation, he said, promising to "end the Obama era, and begin a new era of American prosperity." Bold stuff, and to his critics, perhaps a tad arrogant. After all, his delegate lead is relatively measly at this stage, despite sweeping Florida's slate of 50. Before I dive into the exit polling data, it's important to mention the candidates who essentially skipped this state. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are already in Nevada preparing for Saturday's caucuses -- an electoral format in which they've both thrived. Instead of giving a concession speech in the Sunshine State, Santorum is giving television interviews. On CNN, he telegraphed his campaign's strategy moving forward, offering that "Newt Gingrich had his chance" to assert himself as the conservative alternative to Romney in Florida, and fell short. Santorum said he'll press ahead, avoid personal bitterness, and stick to issues. He mentioned Romneycare specifically, promising to give a major speech on the subject, and citing polls in two states that show him leading Romney in hypothetical head-to-head matchups. The former Senator also went out of his way to decry the negativity of the race. I'm not sure how much mileage he'll get out of that critique, but he's right: 93 percent of presidential TV ads here in Florida were negative. Ron Paul is also regrouping in the Silver State, where he hopes to mobilize his dedicated supporters to surprise some people on Saturday.
Now, onto the Florida exit polling, which contains a veritable political cornucopia of interesting nuggets. I'll focus on the Romney-Gingrich dynamic, since they were the top finishers by a significant margin. Romney won a broad and resounding victory across almost every demographic group. He carried men and women, whites and Hispanics, all age groups, voters of all educational backgrounds, married people and singles, Protestants and Catholics, and voters of all income levels. A few significant bits:
WOMEN: Romney 51 - Gingrich 29
HISPANICS: Romney 53 - Gingrich 30
YOUTH: Romney 39 - Gingrich 23 - Paul 26 (I mention this because Florida is the first contest in which Ron Paul didn't win the 18-29 year old demographic)
UNDER $50K INCOME: Romney 42 - Gingrich 32
CONSERVATIVES: Romney 41 - Gingrich 37
TEA PARTY SUPPORTERS: Romney 40 - Gingrich 38
CATHOLICS: Romney 56 - Gingrich 30
Unsurprisingly, a whopping 62 percent of voters said the economy was their top issue this cycle. Among them, Romney topped Gingrich by 20 points, 51-31. On questions of personal qualities, a large plurality (45 percent) of Florida Republicans said a candidate's capacity to defeat President Obama was paramount. Romney carried this group, 58-33. On personable favorability, both Romney and Gingrich were above water among Florida Republicans, but the gap was wide. Newt's favorable/unfavorable figures were 55/40. Romney's were 76/21. Last but not least, with 98 percent of votes tallied, Romney has won more votes than Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum combined. As for the notion that Santorum dropping out would overwhelmingly benefit Newt, ABC News' Amy Walters points out that Santorum backers told exit pollsters that they more favorable opinions of Romney than Gingrich by a 14-point margin. There were, however, some silver linings for Newt supporters:
VERY CONSERVATIVE VOTERS: Gingrich 42 - Romney 29
WHITE EVANGELICALS: Gingrich 39 - Romney 36
DEBATES MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR: Gingrich 41 - Romney 39
PRO-LIFE: Gingrich 39 - Romney 39
Unlike Paul and Santorum, Gingrich chose not to congratulate Romney on his Florida victory in his post-election remarks. Slate's Dave Weigel reports that Gingrich did not call to concede the race, despite Romney having done so in South Carolina. Speaking at a podium adorned with a sign reading "46 States To Go," Gingrich was defiant in defeat. He vowed to "contest" every state moving forward (which may be tough in Virginia) and predicted that he would ultimately emerge as the party's nominee. Newt essentially recited the stump speech he delivered across Florida over the last week, pledging to defeat Romney and Obama's "money power" with "big ideas."
Up next: Nevada. Romney is favored to win this weekend, but we haven't seen fresh polling in a while, and both Santorum and Paul have demonstrated strength in caucus settings. Later in February: Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri (non-binding), Arizona and Michigan. The next GOP debate is scheduled for February 22 in Mesa, Arizona.
UPDATE - One concerning note for the GOP generally: Overall Republican turnout in Florida was down from 2008 by roughly 250,000 votes.