Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has swept the biggest primary day of the 2012 presidential race so far, winning a decisive victory over former House speaker Newt Gingrich in the Florida Republican primary.
Romney’s double-digit lead in the Sunshine State polls puts him in a strong position heading into February’s nominating contests. But Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) have given no indication that they plan to pull out of the race – which means that a lengthy, hard-fought nomination battle could be in store.
Here are the latest updates from Post reporters Felicia Sonmez, Rachel Weiner, Aaron Blake, Natalie Jennings and other members of our team on the trail.
9:55 p.m. | Florida primary turnout down from 2008
Estimated turnout in the Florida primary, according to Edison Media Research: 1,750,000, which is down from 1,949,498 in 2008. Edison’s new estimate of the absentee/early vote is 35 percent of the total.
9:40 p.m. | Ron Paul in Nevada: Liberty, liberty, liberty
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) delivered his primary-night address to supporters in Henderson, Nev., and it was a speech that hewed closely to (albeit is much shorter in length than) the candidate’s remarks after the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina earlier this month.
He called for the “protection of personal liberty” and said that the U.S. should “reject and not get engaged in any more wars” that aren’t supported by voters.
“Very simply, the answer is send only people to Washington, send only people to the White House that ... enforce the Constitution,” he said to loud applause from his supporters.
The size of his primary-night crowd – much larger than former senator Rick Santorum’s in Nevada – suggested that Paul is working to give former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney a run for his money in the Silver State.
“End the Fed! End the Fed!” Paul’s supporters chanted at one point in his speech. It’s only the latest sign that regardless of their candidate’s finish in the polls, Paul is first in the hearts of his supporters.
9:20 p.m. | Gingrich: It’s a ‘two-man race’
In a defiant speech following his resounding Florida defeat, former House speaker Newt Gingrich insisted that his campaign would continue though to the national convention.
“It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich said, without naming Florida victor Mitt Romney.
He pointed to the “46 States” signs being waved by his supporters. “We did this in part for the elite media,” he said. “I just want to reassure them tonight we are going to contest every place, and we are going to win, and we are going to be in Tampa as the nominee in August.”
Acknowledging that he was outspent, he said, “We’re going to have people power defeat money power in the next six months.”
Gingrich’s speech was full of his classic lines; he called Obama “radical” and said, “I’m not going to compete with Obama in singing, because I’m not running for Entertainer in Chief.”
In another joke, Gingrich said, “You know I forgot my teleprompter. I’m having to wing this because of a staff failure.” And the speech did have a freewheeling, off-the-cuff air to it.
There was little acknowledgement of his defeat and he did not congratulate Romney on his victory.
9:10 p.m. | Santorum: Gingrich ‘had his opportunity’
Is former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) planning to bow out of the race?
Not if his Florida primary-night speech is anything to go by.
In brief remarks to supporters, Santorum – who is delivering his primary night speech from Las Vegas, not from the Sunshine State – reprises his argument that he’s the candidate best positioned to draw a “clear contrast” with Obama.
“Newt Gingrich had his opportunity,” Santorum said, arguing that the former House speaker “came out of the state of South Carolina with a big win and a lot of money. ... And it didn’t work. He became the issue. We can’t allow our nominee to be the issue in the campaign.”
As Santorum readied to deliver his remarks, a Nevada supporter presented him with a giant stuffed elephant and a card for his three-year-old daughter, Bella, who is expected to be released Wednesday after being hospitalized with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia.
“Bella had a tough couple of days, but she has turned around, she is recovering and she is going to go home tomorrow,” Santorum said of his daughter, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder.
Santorum said his fundraising Tuesday went very well, raising more than $200,000 online. His campaign said earlier Tuesday that it had raised $4.2 million so far in January.
“I think people are realizing that it’s time to coalesce,” he said.
Santorum said he will take on Romney with a strongly worded but issues-oriented speech on Wednesday.
Returns so far show Santorum in a distant third place at 13 percent. He declined to return to Florida after his daughter fell ill this weekend, instead moving on to four states holding contests in early February.
8:45 p.m. | Romney targets Obama’s ‘colleagues in the faculty lounge’
In his victory speech, Mitt Romney congratulated his three opponents and scoffed at the idea that a long and contested GOP primary will help Democrats.
“They like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign witll leave us divided and weak,” Romney said. “But I’ve got news for them: A competitive campaign will not divide us. It prepares us...”
Romney, as he often does when he has been in the lead, set aside party politics and instead focused his message on President Obama.
He criticized Obama for running for reelection despite not turning the economy around in his first three years.
“You were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way,” Romney said.
Romney at one point tried to paint Obama as an elite academic, referring to the former college professor’s “colleagues in the faculty lounge.”
Romney sounded every bit the part of the GOP nominee, saying he looked forward to returning to Florida for the party’s August convention.
“I stand ready to lead this party and lead our nation,” Romney said.
8:45 p.m. | Romney, Huntsman camps file fundraising reports
The Post’s T.W. Farnam reports that Mitt Romney’s campaign – and Jon Huntsman’s former campaign – have filed their fourth-quarter fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Their reports, along with those from several more super PACs, are below for your browsing pleasure.
ALSO CLICK: Can you match the super PAC to the candidate it supports? Try your hand at our super PAC quiz.
8:35 p.m. | The party at Romney HQ
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker captured the scene at Mitt Romney’s headquarters after he won the Florida Republican primary.
Meanwhile, Politico’s Ginger Gibson describes a less interested crowd at Newt Gingrich’s headquarters.
Many people here at the Newt return party are in for a hardware convention and came down to check it out.— Ginger Gibson (@GingerGibson) February 1, 2012
8:15 p.m. | Mitt Romney on what the election is really about
Mitt Romney is staying on message and in sync with the electorate in Florida after his win in the primary there.
Thank you FL! While we celebrate this victory, we must not forget what this election is really about: defeating Barack Obama. #Mitt2012— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 1, 2012
Defeating Obama is what the voters were all about: Exit poll data shows most ranked the ability to do that ahead of experience, moral character and conservative bonafides when picking a candidate.
8:00 p.m. | Exit polls reveal Romney’s victory map
Preliminary exit poll data show a big night for Mitt Romney.
Women: Romney won female voters by a whopping 51 to 29 percent margin. Maybe has something to do with these Google seartches. (Romney also won men, by a smaller 41 to 36 percent margin.)
Cubans: Romney cleaned up among Hispanic voters, a group he struggled with in 2008. He beat Gingrich by nearly 2-to-1 with both Cuban-Americans and other Hispanic Republicans, according to preliminary exit polls.
Early voters: Romney was on the air in Florida weeks before his opponents, and it paid off. About 30 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day, with Romney beating Gingrich by a wide, nearly 20-point margin among these voters.
Ads: Romney and his supporters blanketed Florida with ads that were almost uniformly negative. Among those calling campaign advertisements important factors in their vote, Romney beat Gingrich by about 30 points.
Romney lost big among voters feel it is most important to nominate a “true conservative,” but only 1 in 8 voters see that as their top priority.
8 p.m. | Romney wins Florida: Networks
Florida is Romney Country — big time.
The former Massachusetts governor has won the Sunshine State’s GOP presidential primary, according to multiple TV networks.
With 56 percent of precincts reporting, Romney is taking 48 percent to former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s 31 percent. Former senator Rick Santorum is taking 13 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is in fourth with 7 percent.
Romney’s current 17-percent margin over Gingrich is even wider than the former House speaker’s 12-point margin of victory in the South Carolina primary earlier this month – a resounding win in a state that is on track to cast more than double the votes of South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire combined.
A look at the county-by-county breakdown shows Romney sweeping key regions. He’s sweeping heavily-Hispanic Miami-Dade County 64 percent to Gingrich’s 24 percent; winning Brevard County on the Space Coast 46 percent to 31 percent; and taking Orange County along the I-4 corridor 48 percent to 33 percent.
7:50 p.m. | Candidate rhymes
Newt and Mitt. Such short names, so many possibilities for their supporters to come up words of support that rhyme with them.
Gingrich supporters released “Hoot for Newt,” which the Chicago Sun Times calls the “death of hip hop.”
And freshman Rachel Crosby spotted some fellow students at the University of Florida getting poetic for Romney. Their stickers subtly say, “If you give a [word rhyming with Mitt], vote for Mitt.”
7:40 p.m. | Last-minute speech prep for Romney
Mitt Romney engages in a little 11th-hour prep:
Last minute speech prep twitter.com/tromney/status…— Tagg Romney (@tromney) February 1, 2012
Meanwhile, a sign at the Newt Gingrich primary-night HQ suggests the former House speaker isn’t throwing in the towel anytime soon:
Podium sign at Newt party twitter.com/evanmc_s/statu…— e mcmorris-santoro (@evanmc_s) February 1, 2012
7:25 p.m. | Romney takes strong early lead
With 21 percent of precincts reporting, Mitt Romney is leading with 49 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich with 29 percent, Rick Santorum with 13 percent and Ron Paul with 7 percent.
The raw vote totals: 209,835 for Romney, 125,298 for Gingrich, 54,391 for Santorum and 30,150 for Paul.
7:10 p.m. | Gingrich camp behind robocall, ‘unfortunately’
A spokesman for Newt Gingrich said the campaign regrets putting out a robocall accusing Mitt Romney of cutting off kosher meals for Holocaust victims.
The call was “unfortunately” put out by the campaign but did not go through “the normal vetting process,” Joe DeSantis told the Wall Street Journal, adding that the line of attack would not be used in future contests.
Gingrich told reporters earlier that he had not heard the call.
7 p.m. | Most polls are closed
Most polls in the Sunshine State are closed, and the first official numbers are beginning to roll in.
Looking to follow the results? Click here for live updates on our county-by-county map.
6:55 p.m. | Romney confident ahead of Florida poll closing
Mitt Romney strikes a confident tone in remarks to supporters Tuesday afternoon.
“We came to Florida, and Speaker Gingrich didn’t have two good debates,” Romney said. “I did. ... I’ll tell you, if you’re attacked, I’m not going to just sit back. I’m going to fight back and fight back hard. You really can’t whine about negative campaigning when you’ve launched a very negative campaign in South Carolina.”
6:55 p.m. | Expect ‘fiery’ Gingrich speech
According to ABC News’s Jon Karl, Newt Gingrich will give a “fiery and defiant” speech tonight.
Earlier today, Gingrich told ABC News that he expected the race to go on “six or eight months ... unless Romney drops out earlier.”
6:40 p.m. | The Florida playlist
Polls close at 7 p.m., but we probably won’t have results for at least another hour. While you wait, listen to some of our favorite Florida music:
6:35 p.m. | Campaign, super PAC fundraising reports rolling in
Five candidates and six “super PACs” so far have made their campaign filings to the Federal Election Commission.
Here they are, for your perusing pleasure.
Also filing: the super PAC backing Stephen Colbert. Click “View Miscellaneous Document” on this page to view a special message sent by Colbert to the FEC on behalf of the “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” PAC.
6:20 p.m. | Obama raises $68 million for campaign, DNC
If it’s Jan. 31, it’s FEC Day. Candidates and super PACs are expected to release their fundraising numbers throughout the night; in the meantime, The Post’s Aaron Blake has the details on the Obama campaign’s fourth-quarter fundraising haul:
Sixty people and couples have raised at least a half-million dollars for President Obama’s reelection.
Obama’s campaign and an affiliated committee run with the Democratic National Committee both filed their fourth quarter financial reports Tuesday, showing a highly effective bundling operation in full gear.
The Federal Election Commission reports show Obama raised a combined $68 million for his campaign and a joint fundraising committee with the DNC. And to go along with the filings, the campaign voluntarily released the names of 60 bundlers who have raised at least half a million dollars for the president.
For more, click here.
6:10 p.m. | Ron Paul asks for apology from Gingrich camp over staff scuffle
Rep. Ron Paul is not in Florida, but one of his supporters there is not having a good day. Paul tweeted about an apparent incident between a supporter and a member of Newt Gingrich’s security team:
We apologize in advance for the foot in your feed.
6:00 p.m. | The most conservative Florida voters ever?
From Post polling director Jon Cohen:
If the early exit poll numbers hold, Florida’s will be the most Republican electorate yet, with nearly eight in 10 voters describing themselves as Republicans.
Without question, it will have the highest share of non-white voters: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina were 99, 99, and 98 percent white, respectively. Right now, Florida is 82 percent, about where it was four years ago.
It will almost certainly be the oldest voter pool of any of the first contests, with seniors making up nearly four in 10. A quarter or more of all voters in the first three contests were from rural areas; in Florida, it’s under one in 10.
5:40 p.m. | Two-thirds of Florida primary voters are tea-party supporters, exit polls show
The Post’s polling team – Jon Cohen, Scott Clement and Peyton Craighill – has the details on the first round of early exit polls. Here’s what we know about the composition of the Florida electorate so far:
Voters - Conservative electorate -- in early exit poll numbers, the Florida electorate is more conservative, with more voters identifying as “very conservative” than in 2008.
Cubans make up about one in 10 voters in the early numbers; nearly four in 10 are age 65 and up. These are voters through mid-afternoon voters (and early voters), so composition may change.
Tea party - Tea party fervor is at least as high in Florida as it has been in the previous contests according to preliminary data. Two in three Republican voters say they support the tea party movement, with nearly four in 10 calling themselves “strong supporters.” Strong tea party backers were a weak spot for Mitt Romney in Iowa and South Carolina, but not in New Hampshire.
Time of decision - About a quarter of voters say they made up their minds in the past few days, in preliminary data.
Debates - About two-thirds call the recent debates the most or one of the most important factors in their decision.
Evangelical - This voting group edged up from 2008 to nearly half the electorate, still well below Iowa and South Carolina, but higher than in New Hampshire.
Candidate quality - The ability to beat President Obama is the No. 1 issue for Florida voters, according to preliminary exit polls. Nearly half say this is the thing they are looking for most in a candidate, similar to South Carolina and higher than in New Hampshire or Iowa. Of lesser importance for voters is finding a candidate with the right experience, someone with strong moral character or someone who is a “true conservative.”
Issues - Based on early exit poll results, about six in 10 Florida voters say the economy is most important in deciding their vote. That’s very similar to the number of voters in South Carolina and New Hampshire who said the same. Its no wonder, for about three in 10 Republican voters say they are falling behind financially, above the levels in South Carolina and New Hampshire. The economic downturn has been a particular issue in the state, with about half of voters in early exit polls saying foreclosures in their communities have been a major problem.
Immigration - In early data, the Republican electorate splits into rough thirds on how to deal with most illegal immigrants working in the U.S. Over one in three say they should be offered a chance to apply for citizenship, while somewhat fewer say they should be allowed to stay as temporary workers and another three in 10 think most should be deported.
5:40 p.m. | A beautiful day to head to the polls
The Washington Post’s Linda Davidson photographed retirees hanging out at the Kate Jackson Community Center, a polling station in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Tampa. Hyde Park is known to be home to a heavy Republican voting bloc.
5:35 p.m. | Where are the candidates spending their primary night?
Two GOP hopefuls – Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney -- will be holding their primary-night parties in Florida, while the other two – Rick Santorum and Ron Paul -- will have already moved on to the Silver State. Here’s a look at the candidates’ whereabouts:
Mitt Romney: Tampa Convention Center in Tampa.
Newt Gingrich: Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando.
Rick Santorum: Campaign headquarters in Las Vegas.
Ron Paul: Green Valley Ranch Resort & Spa in Henderson, Nev.
5:30 p.m. | The most negative primary ever
The Florida primary isn’t just negative — it’s reportedly the most negative primary in history.
According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad buying, a full 92 percent of the ads aired in Florida over the past week were negative.
Newt Gingrich went 95 percent negative; Mitt Romney went 99 percent negative. The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future went completely negative, while the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future was only 53 percent negative.
Sixty-eight percent of the ads airing in Florida this week are anti-Gingrich. ABC News’ Jon Karl says the former Massachusetts governor’s only positive spot on the air this week is a Spanish-language radio ad.
“I spent much of my academic career telling reporters, ‘Relax, this is not the most negative campaign ever,’” CMAG President Ken Goldstein told CNN. “Well, this IS the most negative campaign ever.”
Romney defended his campaign’s negative tone earlier in the day, claiming he had to fight back after being “vastly outspent with negative ads” in South Carolina. That’s not really true — he and his supporters outspent Gingrich in the Palmetto State.
5 p.m. | GOP race is like Clinton-Obama primary contest, McConnell says
Has the 2012 GOP race given you flashbacks of the drawn-out 2008 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
You’re not alone.
Asked about the current GOP race, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday that he believes the battle is “reminiscent of the contest between Obama and Clinton on the other side in 2008.”
“Obviously, that ended at some point,” McConnell said after the Senate Republicans’ weekly policy luncheon. “I think it was about June and it didn’t seem to have done them any harm in the general election. And I don’t think this contest is going to do us any harm either.”
McConnell, who like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has declined to back a candidate in the race, added that the race “will end when it ends, and at that point, I think we’re going to have a nominee who’s very competitive.”
“I think we have an excellent chance to have a new president next year and we’re just all watching, like you are, the drama associated with this contest,” he said.