With his blow-out victory in the South Carolina primary, it turns out that Newt Gingrich had the keys to the car to roll out of the Camp Crystal Lake of electoral politics. And with that win a prediction I made back in December — that Florida could be Mitt Romney’s Waterloo — comes into clearer focus.
Anyone paying attention and mindful of Palmetto State politics knew that Romney was a long shot to win there. And the exit polls bear this out. Sure, folks were impressed by Gingrich’s aggressive debate style and want a nominee who will take that same fight to President Obama. But the former House speaker didn’t trounce the former Massachusetts governor on the basis of his debate performances alone.
Evangelical Christians, who made up the bulk of those voting on Saturday, overwhelmingly went for Gingrich. And the “Anybody but Mitt” crowd was out in full force. According to The Post, “Gingrich cleaned up among voters with reservations about Romney, winning 50 percent of their votes.” But here’s the statistic in the exit polls that isn’t getting nearly as much play as it should and spells trouble with a capital “T” for Romney. When asked, “Which one of these candidate qualities mattered most in deciding whom to support today?,” 38 percent of those who said “Is a true conservative” went for Gingrich. Romney got just 2 percent of that vote. Two.
This doesn’t bode well for his effort in the Sunshine State. New and reliable polls will be unveiled leading up to the Jan. 31 primary, but might I remind you that an NBC News-Marist Poll from last month showed that Romney was not conservative enough for Florida.
Specifically, while 70 percent of likely Florida Republican primary voters describe themselves as conservative, 66 percent of likely Florida Republican primary voters don’t think Romney is a conservative.
Failure to win Florida could mean eventual failure to win the nomination. Saturday night on Twitter, @jmillstead asked MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, “does #sc results get us closer to brokered convention?” The “Morning Joe” anchor responded, “No. But a Newt Florida win would be the first step.” Stripped of his momentum and aura of inevitability thanks to actually losing Iowa and getting a Gingrich beat-down in South Carolina, Romney must win Florida for all that money and organization he boasts about to mean anything going forward.