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.