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5 lessons the Florida primary taught us

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There wasn’t much drama in the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday night. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pulled away to a convincing enough victory that the race was called for him within moments of polls closing.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (R) watches primary election resukts with his son Josh during a primary election night event in Tampa, Florida, January 31, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand

But, that dearth of drama doesn’t mean that there weren’t lessons learned from Tuesday’s vote in the Sunshine State that can be carried forward as the race moves to Nevada and beyond.

After sorting through the exit polling, listening to the candidates’ speeches and sifting through the county-by-county results, we came up with five major lessons learned. (And, yes, we always learn lessons in fives. Doesn’t everyone?)

Here they are:

1. Negative ads work: Ninety-two percent of all the television ads run in the Florida Republican presidential primary were negative, according to an analysis by Elizabeth Wilner of the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).

Romney and his team decided after his South Carolina loss that they were going to release the hounds and they did just that in Florida, dropping a barrage of negative ads ($15 million and counting ) that cast Gingrich as an ethically challenged and unreliable candidate.

While Gingrich decried the onslaught and tried to make it the issue in the race, voters didn’t perceive Romney as overly negative. Thirty four percent said Romney had run an unfair campaign while an equal 34 percent said the same of Gingrich, according to exit polling.

The lesson in Florida is the same lesson we learn in race after race (after race): Voters say they don’t like negative ads but the messages those negative commercials carry often heavily influence the voting choices they make.

And that means that there are plenty more negative commercials to come as the race moves to Nevada, Colorado, Maine, Arizona and Michigan.

2. Romney can win Republicans: After his crushing defeat in South Carolina, questions were — rightly raised — about Romney’s ability to win self-identified Republican voters. He did much to answer those questions in Florida.

Eighty percent of voters in the Florida primary identified themselves as Republicans; Romney took 48 percent among that group to 33 percent for Gingrich.

(Sidebar: The only people who can vote in the Florida Republican primary are registered Republicans and yet 18 percent said they were independents and two percent said they were Democrats, according to exit polling. Odd.)

Two-thirds of Florida voters said they supported the tea party; Romney took 41 percent to Gingrich’s 37 percent among that group.

There are still signs of vulnerability for Romney on the far ideological right of the party, however. Among those who described themselves “very conservative”, Romney took 30 percent to 42 percent for Gingrich. And among those who strongly support the tea party, Gingrich won 45 percent to 33 percent for Romney.

That means that Romney hasn’t sewn up the nomination just yet and that there remains something of an opening for Gingrich or former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum to slip through. But that opening is far less wide than it was ten days ago.

3. Newt is unbound (really): Gingrich’s speech in the wake of his loss on Tuesday night was decidedly odd. Despite losing badly to Romney, Gingrich gave what amounted to an acceptance speech — running through a laundry list of things he would do on his first day in the White House.

At one point, Gingrich joked that he didn’t have a TelePrompter and was “winging it” — and that’s exactly what his speech felt like.

Gingrich has prided himself on coming back from the political scrapheap by dispatching his consultants and running the most un­or­tho­dox of campaigns. And, as South Carolina proved, un­or­tho­dox can work in certain situations.

Of course, those situations — small states heavily dependent on retail politicking — is not the makeup of the majority of states in the next two months of the Republican nominating calendar.

If you were already a Newt acolyte, Gingrich’s speech on Tuesday probably sounded like Newt being Newt to you. But, for everyone else the speech likely encapsulated the questions they already had about the former Speaker — namely, is he too impressed with himself and his ideas to see the practical difficulties now before him.

4. Romney pivots to November: After running a Florida campaign focused almost exclusively on Gingrich over the past 10 days, Romney had nothing but kind words for his rival(s) tonight — calling them “serious and able”.

He saved his hot rhetoric for President Obama — “President Obama has adopted a policy of appeasement and apology,” Romney said at one point — and worked hard to cast himself as the all-but-declared nominee.

This is a return to form for Romney who spent the vast majority of the campaign — with the last 10 days excepted — bashing Obama and ignoring his Republican rivals.

It also suggests that Romney is extending a bit of an oratorical peace offering to Gingrich, Santorum and Paul — giving them the opportunity to get on his side in the wake of his convincing win. None of his three rivals seemed ready to take him up on that offer, however.

5. Electability matters: Romney’s strength in this Republican race is that he is generally regarded — even by those who don’t think he is conservative enough — as the candidate with the best chance to beat Obama.

And, Florida proved that electability matters — a lot — to Republican voters. Forty six percent of voters said the ability to defeat President Obama was the candidate quality that mattered most to them, more than double the number who cited a candidate’s experience (20 percent).

Of those voters who said electability was the most important thing in their vote, Romney took 58 percent to 32 percent for Gingrich.

We’ve long believed that Romney’s only path to the nomination is through the heads of the Republican party voters. Since Romney will never be the person that makes conservative hearts go pitter patter, he has to hope that the desire among GOP voters to get rid of Obama trumps the doubts they have about his conservative credentials.

Florida voters clearly felt that way. Will Nevada, Arizona and Michigan follow suit?

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