Mitt Romney knew he had to win Florida. He did. He knew he would have to take down Newt Gingrich and destroy Gingrich’s standing with the voters. He did. He and his allies spent lavishly on television ads attacking Gingrich. And they worked.
According to the Florida exit poll, voters who said campaign advertising was important to their decision voted for Romney by better than 2 to 1. And 40 percent of those who cast ballots in Florida on Tuesday said they had a generally unfavorable view of Gingrich. Romney outspent Gingrich by somewhere in the range of 5 to 1. Almost all of the money was spent attacking Gingrich. The attacks stuck.
So who, on this very Romney night, resisted the former Massachusetts governor? What the exit poll made clear is that voters on the right end of the party have still not made their peace with him. Republicans who call themselves very conservative voted by better than 4 to 3 for Gingrich. Gingrich won by a similar margin over Romney among strong Tea party supporters. The staunchest opponents of abortion -- those who said it should be illegal in all cases -- went to Gingrich by an even bigger margin, with Rick Santorum drawing almost a fifth of their ballots. Romney was far weaker among white evangelical Christians than with other voters. This constituency appears to have split narrowly for Gingrich over Romney, with Santorum getting about a fifth of their votes.
Another sign of dissatisfaction on the right: Roughly four Florida voters in ten said that Romney’s positions on the issues were not conservative enough.
None of this mattered to the outcome in Florida, but it does suggest there is a base of support for a Romney opponent. Romney’s good fortune is that none of the alternative candidates left in the race seems to be in a position to capitalize on this. Gingrich’s vulnerabilities offered rich material for the massive negative advertising campaign deployed against him. Santorum appears to have considerable good will among Republicans but lacks the resources to turn his campaign into a serious threat. And Ron Paul faltered badly, partly because he barely contested the state.
Gingrich is certainly in a position to make Romney’s life unpleasant, and he seems determined to do that. But for now, a party that has been defined since 2009 by its most energetic and ardent conservatives is moving toward nominating the very candidate such Republicans reject.
More opinions on the Florida primary