Mitt Romney scored a decisive win in Florida’s primary Tuesday by regaining momentum on electability, neutralizing major weaknesses from previous contests and opening up a big advantage among female voters.
As in South Carolina, nearly half of all GOP voters in Florida said “beating Barack Obama” was the No. 1 thing they were looking for in a candidate, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research. Only now, Romney won nearly 60 percent of these voters; in South Carolina, Gingrich had won a majority of those focused primarily on winning back the White House. Asked who is the most electable candidate, Romney beat Gingrich by nearly 2 to 1.
Putting some questions to rest?
As he has elsewhere, Romney racked up a large share of moderates and liberals, winning by nearly 30 percentage points. He won by a similar margin among voters neutral or opposed to the tea party movement.
What’s different in Florida is Romney’s competitiveness with Newt Gingrich among evangelical Christians. Romney also stopped Gingrich from running up the massive margins he had in South Carolina among strong tea party supporters and the most conservative voters.
Romney beat Gingrich among those voters seeing the recent debates as important factors. Only 10 days ago in South Carolina, debate-focused voters helped Gingrich surge to victory by double-digits, with the former House speaker topping Romney by a gaping 27-point margin among those saying debates were an important factor.
The Romney campaign and friendly groups spent heavily on Florida airwaves to highlight Gingrich’s vulnerabilities. Among those calling campaign advertisements important factors in their vote, Romney beat Gingrich by more than 30 points, while he won by roughly 10 points among those seeing ads as less crucial.
Female voters went for Romney by a wide 52 to 28 percent margin, it’s the first time in any of the first four contests that a candidate topped 50 percent among either women or men. Romney also scored a victory among men, but by a much slimmer margin: 41 to 36.
Female voters in Florida expressed generally mixed feelings about Gingrich as a person, with 48 percent holding favorable views; 46 unfavorable ones. (Men break favorable, 61 to 34 percent.) Nearly half of all female voters say they’d be dissatisfied if Gingrich were to win the nomination.
Romney’s won among primary day voters, but he also got a big boost from early and absentee voters. Edison Research estimates that 35 percent of all voters cast ballots before Election Day. Romney beat Gingrich 50 to 31 percent among early voters, compared with a 12-point win among primary day voters.
Beating back some demons from 2008
This time around, Romney was able to beat back some demons from his 2008 loss to John McCain -- most notably among voters of Cuban background. In 2008, Romney won just 9 percent of Cubans, but this year he is winning 57 percent. He beats Gingrich by a nearly 2 to 1 margin.
Seven in 10 Gingrich supporters see Romney as insufficiently conservative; more than half would be dissatisfied with him as the party’s nominee. That’s a feeling that goes both ways: nearly six in 10 Romney backers would be unhappy with Gingrich as the GOP top-of-the-ticket.
Gingrich has been able to hold onto significant levels of support among two key Republican voting groups -- strong tea party supporters and those who call themselves “very conservative.” Gingrich tops Romney among both these groups by double digits. His advantages are not as large as they were in his South Carolina blowout, but these core Republicans are not deserting him and they comprise large blocs of voters.
Despite the big win, more than four in 10 Florida voters see him as not conservative enough (including about one in 10 of his own supporters). And about three in 10 say they would be dissatisfied if Romney were the nominee.
This dissatisfaction rises to half of voters who are most concerned with picking a candidate who is a “true conservative.” Romney also still loses big among those prioritizing a candidate’s being a “true conservative,” but since Iowa, only about one in seven GOP voters have called this the most sought after quality.
Another potential vulnerability for Romney is among economically frustrated voters. More than one in four Florida voters said their families are “falling behind financially,” and Rommey split these voters 41 to 37 percent with Gingrich.
Paul and Santorum, a way forward?
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul finished far behind the top two, but there remain slivers for the underdogs. Paul’s primary base of support has been young voters, those under age 30. This was again his best group today, but he placed second to Romney, the first time this cycle he’s not won the group outright. Young voters comprised a very small proportion of primary voters. Paul’s other key group - independents who vote in Republican primaries - were comparatively weak for him tonight. Both Romney and Gingrich drew higher levels of support among self-identified independents.
Santorum again won significant blocs of voters who said abortion was their top voting issue, and those looking for a “true conservative” or someone with strong moral character. Still, he didn’t win these groups outright and these issues take a clear backseat to a candidate who can beat Obama in November.
These are preliminary results from Republican primary poll of 2,835 voters as they exited primary voting places in Florida on Jan. 31, 2012. The poll was conducted by Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool, The Washington Post and other media organizations. Typical characteristics have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.