Monday, January 30, 2012

Florida Primary Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the big day: The Florida Primary. The media and all the political pundits are paying a lot of attention to Florida, and they are right to do so. Florida will be the first big test of how the fight between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich will play out across the country. Iowa's Romney-Santorum tie was inconclusive, Romney's win in his "backyard" of New Hampshire was expected, and Gingrich's win in his "backyard" of South Carolina should have come as no surprise. But Florida is viewed as a neutral battleground. If Romney or Gingrich decisively beats the other in Florida, we can expect a similar dynamic across the other "neutral" states in the country.

The other story, which will probably get a lot less attention, will be Rick Santorum's performance as the lesser Anti-Romney. If he can get close enough to Gingrich, it will suggest that some Anti-Romney voters are having second thoughts about Gingrich. If Santorum does poorly, he will increasingly be seen as a useless appendage to the race.

There has been a lot of polling in Florida, and here are the most recent ones:

Florida Primary
01/29 Suffolk -- Romney 47, Gingrich 27, Santorum 12, Paul 9
01/29 Quinnipiac -- Romney 42, Gingrich 29, Santorum 11, Paul 11
01/29 PPP (D) -- Romney 37, Gingrich 33, Paul 13, Santorum 13
01/29 Insider Adv -- Romney 36, Gingrich 31, Santorum 12, Paul 12
01/29 WeAskAmerica -- Romney 50, Gingrich 28, Santorum 12, Paul 10
01/29 SurveyUSA -- Romney 41, Gingrich 26, Santorum 12, Paul 12
01/29 Reuters -- Romney 42, Gingrich 30, Santorum 16, Paul 6
01/28 ARG -- Romney 43, Gingrich 32, Santorum 11, Paul 8
01/28 Rasmussen -- Romney 44, Gingrich 28, Santorum 12, Paul 10

The result shouldn't be in much doubt: Mitt Romney leads in every single poll. The only question is the margin. Most of the polls give Romney a double-digit lead, with the biggest being about 20 points. Two of the polls (PPP and Insider Advantage) have Romney with about a 5 point lead. The disparity is odd, but it may have something to do with the way the pollsters handle early voting. By all reports, Romney has a huge advantage among those who have already voted, and perhaps some of the pollsters weigh that differently.

In recent days, Elephant Watcher has spent some time exploring the primaries and caucuses set to take place further down the road. It's clear that the schedule favors Romney. Many of his strongest states are backloaded in the winner-take-all period of the primary, beginning April 3rd. He also has a slate of favorable states immediately following Florida. Thus, he gets the benefit of building up momentum early on, and he has the delegate advantage of stacking the winner-take-all deck. Most of Gingrich's favorable states (i.e. solid-red Southern states) are sandwiched in the middle of the schedule, where they offer less in the way of early momentum and fewer delegates.

Then there are the "neutral" states, particularly red states outside the South, and Republican-leaning swing states--like Florida. They are sprinkled throughout the schedule. Whom do those states favor? Florida's result should tell us. If Romney crushes Gingrich in Florida, he can do the same in similar states. Gingrich really needs a win in Florida to blunt Romney's momentum and prove that he can win enough to offset Romney's schedule advantage. (And Republican-leaning swing states are obviously necessary for Gingrich if Romney is going to win all the blue ones, as seems likely.)

After losing Florida, the Gingrich camp is likely to spin that Florida wasn't really a fair fight, and that Florida was really a pro-Romney state all along. Elephant Watcher isn't persuaded. At his height, Gingrich was polling very well in Florida. It's also, technically, a Southern state. There's nothing about Florida that really suggests a pro-Romney bent, other than the fact that it isn't an anti-Romney state.

Then there's the money issue. Florida, being one of the nation's most populous states, is an expensive place to campaign. Romney has the money advantage. But future states won't get any cheaper. They may be smaller, but they will come one after the other, often with multiple states voting on the same day. If anything, campaigning will become more expensive from now on, not less. Moreover, if Gingrich starts losing states, his money will dry up. He will receive fewer campaign contributions, while Romney will get more. Gingrich has also been unusually reliant on one big SuperPAC donor, which is a bad sign.

In conclusion, losing Florida will be a crushing blow to Gingrich. If Romney's margin of victory is big, Gingrich will be mocked in the media as experiencing another "meltdown" or "implosion." The only silver lining is that Romney is now expected to win. If Gingrich loses by a very, very small margin, he may be seen as competitive. But to continue being viewed that way, Gingrich will also need to do better than expected in the February contests.