Unlike earlier primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Florida’s contest was open only to registered Republicans; about seven in 10 voters identified themselves as somewhat or very conservative, according to exit polls.
Though Romney’s victory could be a turning point, senior Republicans say the race for the nomination is far from over.
“Florida is a big and diverse state that will be a crucial state in the fall. This is an important win for Romney,” said Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian political organization. “But given all the ups and downs we’ve had, I don’t think you can call this for Romney just yet.”
The size and breadth of Romney’s win provide the first real evidence that he has the potential to coalesce a party that has been deeply split between its establishment wing, which backs him, and the insurgent forces of the tea party movement, which have been suspicious of his moderate record.
The result in Florida was very different from the defeat Romney suffered in South Carolina only 10 days before.
In Florida, Romney was competitive with former House speaker Newt Gingrich among evangelical Christians. He also prevented Gingrich from running up the large margins he had in South Carolina among tea party supporters and the most conservative voters.
The win also gives Romney a shot of momentum going into February’s contests, most of which will be held on terrain where he has an advantage. Internally, Romney’s campaign is calculating that the primaries and caucuses this month could boost his delegate total to 250 or more, nearly a quarter of what he needs to nail down the nomination.
Still, there is likely to be tension going forward. In the exit polls, more than seven in 10 Gingrich supporters said they see Romney as insufficiently conservative, and more than half would be dissatisfied with him as the party’s nominee.
That’s a feeling that goes both ways: About six in 10 Romney supporters who were polled said they would be unhappy with Gingrich at the top of the Republican ticket.
But that breach may close once a nominee is chosen and Republicans turn their attention to the general election. As in earlier contests, a plurality of Republicans in Florida said the top quality they are seeking in a candidate is the ability to beat President Obama.
Florida — a swing state where the GOP will hold its national convention in August — also afforded the Romney campaign an opportunity to road-test some of its messaging for the general election.
For instance, Romney’s strategists closely watched his totals among women, a constituency where Republicans often have a disadvantage in the fall. In Florida, they were the key to Romney’s victory.