Mitt Romney’s blowout win in Florida on Tuesday provided almost a mirror image of the results just 10 days ago in South Carolina, a head-spinning reversal that underscored the continuing turbulence of the most volatile Republican presidential race since 1940.
In Florida, Romney consolidated and widened his advantage among the groups that have consistently leaned toward him, while narrowing rival Newt Gingrich’s edge among the constituencies at the core of his competing coalition. That was exactly what Gingrich did to Romney in South Carolina.
(PICTURES: 4 Factors That Helped Romney Win)
Romney’s rout in Florida highlighted his financial and organizational advantages, and may have left some lasting scars on the former speaker’s image. The next month of contests run mostly through states that favor Romney; Gingrich isn’t a clear favorite to win another state until Super Tuesday on March 6. But the continued resistance to Romney among the party’s most conservative elements evident in the exit poll suggests that the race, which has stubbornly resisted order for over a year, may have more twists in store before anyone can claim the nomination.
For now, Florida gave Romney a sweeping victory that restored him as the clear front-runner. Throughout the first primaries, Romney has consistently shown the most strength among the GOP’s upscale, economy-focused, and more secular managerial wing. He posted big numbers among all of those groups in Florida on Tuesday night, according to the exit poll published on CNN.com.
Romney carried voters with at least a four-year college degree over Gingrich by 47 percent to 29 percent; won over three-fifths of voters earning over $200,000 annually; swept voters earning between $100,000 and $200,000 by 16 percentage points; and beat Gingrich among self-identified moderates and liberals by about 3-to-1. He routed Gingrich by 2-to-1 among voters who don’t identify as evangelical Christians, and carried nearly three-fifths of those who described themselves as neutral toward the tea party movement. On all those fronts, the center of the party closed ranks behind Romney.
Adding to Romney’s advantage is the fact that those groups are more prevalent in Florida than in South Carolina. Most important, in South Carolina, almost two-thirds of primary voters identified as evangelical Christians; in Florida fully three-fifths did not. Less dramatically, Florida’s electorate was also slightly more affluent and well-educated than South Carolina’s.
Romney didn’t run as well in Florida among the groups that make up the GOP’s competing populist wing. But, compared to South Carolina, he held down Gingrich’s advantage among all of them and he beat him with some of them.
For instance, Romney carried voters without a college education by 45 percent to Gingrich’s 34 percent, after those voters provided Gingrich a crushing 18-percentage-point edge in South Carolina. In Florida, Romney carried voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 and those earning less than $50,000, after struggling with each of those groups in both Iowa and South Carolina.
Most strikingly, Romney battled Gingrich to a near draw among evangelical Christians, carrying 35 percent to Gingrich’s 38 percent. That actually wasn’t much more than the 31 percent among Florida evangelicals that Romney carried in 2008 -- a reminder that his problem with born-again Christians is much more intense in Deep South states like South Carolina than it is elsewhere. (Evangelical Christians preferred Gingrich over Romney by 2-to-1 in South Carolina.)
At the heart of Romney’s success with all of these groups was his recapture of the mantle of electability that he had surrendered in the Palmetto State. In South Carolina, after Gingrich’s searing performances in two debates, the 45 percent of voters who said their top priority was a candidate who could beat President Obama preferred the former speaker by 14 percentage points. In Florida, after Romney ran rings around Gingrich in two debates, the 46 percent of voters who said electability was their top concern preferred the former Massachusetts governor by 26 percentage points.
The one silver lining for Romney in South Carolina last weekend was that after the most difficult week of his campaign, he still won pluralities of moderates, non-evangelicals and wealthy voters. That suggested an opportunity for him to recover in a state that tilted more toward those voters, as Florida does.
The flip side was true for Gingrich on Tuesday night. Amid his pasting, he still held that narrow plurality among evangelicals, maintained a double-digit, 43-30 percent edge among voters who described themselves as very conservative, and amassed a comparable 45-33 percent among those who consider themselves strong tea party supporters. Especially given Romney’s overwhelming financial advantage in Florida, that suggests a foundation that hasn’t completely cracked -- one that could provide Gingrich more opportunity when the calendar turns back toward Southern and Heartland states in March.
Yet to seize that opportunity, Gingrich will also need to restore his competitiveness with voters who straddle the party’s two wings. In South Carolina, Gingrich achieved double-digit margins among voters who described themselves as somewhat conservative or somewhat supportive of the tea party. In Florida, Romney resoundingly carried each of those groups by about 20 percentage points.
Another disappointment for Gingrich: Although he offered a much more flexible and lenient policy on illegal immigration, Florida Hispanics gave Romney a 54 percent majority of their votes, nearly double the 28 percent for Gingrich. That didn’t reflect a rightward tilt on the issue itself. According to the exit poll, just 31 percent of Florida Republican voters said illegal immigrants should be deported, even fewer than the 40 percent who supported that option in the 2008 primary. (A 38 percent plurality said they should be allowed to apply for citizenship and another 26 percent said they should be allowed to stay as temporary workers.) But just 3 percent of voters identified illegal immigration as their top concern (a reflection, partly, of the fact that, for different reasons, the issue does not affect either the large Puerto Rican or Cuban-American populations in the state.)
Yet another cloud for Gingrich in a sky thick with them was the impact of Rick Santorum. Though he finished well behind the two leaders, the exit poll found that Santorum won over twice as large a share of the vote among evangelicals as non-evangelicals, and nearly twice as much support from strong tea party supporters as among those neutral toward the movement. Santorum carried three times as many voters who call themselves very conservative as those who consider themselves moderates. In each case, that meant he pulled much more support from the groups that favored Gingrich than those that preferred Romney.
The Florida result, reinforcing New Hampshire, suggests Romney’s profile and message makes him a strong favorite in all of the coastal states, from New York, New Jersey, and Maryland to California, where the GOP electorate is more upscale and secular. Gingrich may find a more receptive audience in interior states like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin, where non-college voters or evangelical Christians or both make up a majority of the primary electorate.
But another lesson of Florida is that unless Gingrich delivers a more pointed and focused message -- and builds the financial and organizational structure to more effectively transmit it -- the sheer throw weight of the Romney machine may overwhelm even those demographic advantages.