After suffering a big loss in South Carolina, former Republican front-runner Mitt Romney faces a tough road in Florida, where the January 31 primary gives him perhaps his last, best chance to slow Newt Gingrich down.
Democrats are gleefully awaiting the Romney-Gingrich slugfest, with Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz hosting a Sunday conference call “welcoming” the battered Romney campaign to Florida, and state Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux issuing a weekend statement pouring salt in Romney’s wounds, saying that after Saturday’s “embarrassing loss in South Carolina and on the heels of losing the Iowa Caucuses, Mitt Romney enters the Sunshine State with the cloud over his campaign growing larger and on the wrong side of the expectations game.”
And while Romney continues to lead most Florida polls (for now at least) he’s in the hot seat in next week’s primary, which not long ago was seen as his likely coronation as the Republican presidential nominee. Now, Florida promises to be a brutal, high stakes showdown between the wounded Romney, and the surging Gingrich.
Here are the ten biggest factors that could swing the sunshine state.
1. Early and absentee voting
Ballots are already being cast in Florida, with early voting kicking off on Saturday in 62 of the state’s 67 counties. Polls opened a week ago in five counties where a new voting law that cut the early vote period from 14 to 9 days did not go into effect because those counties are covered by the Voting Rights Act and federal pre-clearance is required.
When the nearly 12,000 early votes from those five counties are added to the absentee ballots already turned in as of Sunday, some 225,000 votes are already in the can — more than 10 percent of the expected final tally. That could marginally help Romney, since many of those votes were banked before his recent debate stumbles and his loss in South Carolina. And Romney’s well oiled campaign has had the money and infrastructure to run an efficient campaign to bring in absentee ballots, which are typically the GOP’s not-so secret weapon in Florida elections. Now that he has won South Carolina, which historically has meant becoming the eventual nominee, Gingrich will have the cash to play the turnout game too, but he hasn’t had time to build the ground operation Romney has. Advantage: Romney.
2. Independents on the sidelines
Florida has a large cache of independents, who make up nearly in four registered voters (versus about 36 percent Republicans and 40 percent Democrats.) But they can’t vote in the state’s closed primary, as indies could in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That means that for the first time, Romney has to play to a purely Republican audience, roughly two-thirds of whom identify themselves as conservative or very conservative. And while Gingrich’s record is as full of flip flops on core conservative issues like climate change, immigration and the individual health insurance mandate as Romney’s, South Carolina shows that he speaks to conservatives more convincingly than Romney does. Advantage: Gingrich.
3. Rick Scott
Florida’s deeply unpopular governor could wind up being an anvil around the necks of all the GOP contenders as they head to the state. Rick Scott barely won election in 2010, and quickly became one of the most unpopular governors in the country (Scott reached his personal best approval rating this month; unfortunately his “best” is 38 percent.) Scott’s negative image poses the biggest problem for Romney, who will have to decide whether he wants to even be photographed with a fellow “one percenter” governor whose former company committed record Medicare fraud, and who is even more associated with the cold calculus of vulture capitalism than Romney himself. (More in demand may be Scott’s black lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll.)
Democrats have made it clear they plan to drive home the connection between Scott’s corporate background and Romney’s days at Bain Capital, and both the state and national parties, and their allies have been hitting that theme hard, with Arceneaux accusing Romney of being “like Florida’s unpopular Governor Rick Scott when it comes to corporate greed and shady business practices.” Advantage: Gingrich.
Florida, with its ten media markets and two time zones is no “retail politics” state. What matters in Florida politics is money. It costs about $1 million a week for a statewide TV ad buy. And to date, money has been Romney’s biggest advantage.
Already, the Romney campaign and Mitt-friendly super PACs have spent $7 million on crucial TV advertising and to set up a statewide campaign. Newt and his super PACs haven’t been able to compete. If his South Carolina win opens the donor spigots, Gingrich may be able to get in the advertising game, assuming there’s enough ad inventory left (not to mention the fact that Newt hails from the next door media market: Georgia.) Still, with Gingrich lacking an established campaign structure in such a complex state, for now it’s still: advantage Romney.
Florida is the rare state where Republicans have a solid Hispanic voter base — Hispanics comprise 11 percent of the Florida GOP. Cuban-Americans make up 7 in 10 Republicans in the state’s second largest media market, Miami-Dade County, and both Romney and Gingrich are making a play for their support on foreign policy grounds (short version: Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez: bad)… And Romney is supported by the three Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami, giving him access to their turnout operations.
But Cuban-Americans are declining as a percentage of the state’s overall Hispanic population. The growing groups, Mexican-Americans, Colombians and the largest non-Cuban group: Puerto Ricans, tend to lean Democratic like Hispanics nationwide, and they are concentrated in the crucial I-4 corridor between Tampa – the state’s largest media market – and Orlando. Romney has put himself at odds with Hispanics, Cuban-Americans included, with his tough immigration stance (he was endorsed by the author of Arizona’s draconian immigration law) and particularly his opposition to the DREAM Act, while Gingrich has sounded a more open minded tone.
By the way, even if he did throw Romney a lifeline by endorsing him, which at this point there’s no indication he would do, Sen. Marco Rubio would be no help on the immigration issue since he too opposes DREAM, favors hated English-only laws, and has been considered inconsistent on the immigration issue depending on whether he’s addressing English or Spanish speaking audiences.
Rubio won just over half of the Hispanic vote when he won his Senate seat in a three-way contest in 2010, and attempts by the Republican dominated legislature and governor to push through an Arizona-style immigration law crashed and burned last year. Newt’s softer stance might anger Tea Partiers, but it could help him in the southern part of the state. Advantage: Gingrich.
6. The Tea Party
As in the rest of the country, the Tea Party in Florida cuts both ways. It energized the GOP in 2010 and helped the party keep the governorship and tighten it’s grip on the state legislature. But the Tea Party has become more divided since then, and some of its biggest stars, like Rep. Allen West, are fighting for their political lives. Romney has breadth in Florida but not much depth, and while Tea Partiers would accept him as the nominee, he is the candidate of the unpopular state GOP establishment.
Meanwhile Ron Paul, a natural favorite of tea partners, is skipping Florida to save his campaign cash for later, more manageable contests. Advantage: Gingrich.
7. The debates
Romney has said he’ll show at two Florida debates, starting with the NBC News-National Journal debate Monday night and followed by a second meeting on Thursday. Never have debates been so important for Romney, who had been considered a strong debater early in the primary season. But with Gingrich feeling in his element with his “attack the moderator” strategy, and Romney needing not a draw but a win, the pressure is on him this week. He might even want to come prepared with an answer about his tax returns. Advantage: Gingrich.
8. The economy
Florida has one of the country’s most toxic housing markets, an unemployment rate that at around 10 percent, is 1.5 points higher than the national average, and a governor who ran on a promise to create jobs, only to reject a federally funded high speed rail plan crafted by Republicans that his own party believed could have created up to 22,000 jobs. In that climate, both Romney’s record at Bain and Gingrich’s consulting gig for the federal mortgage middle man Freddie Mac are ripe for attacks.
Romney seems to have the tougher sell, since his core argument that his business background makes him uniquely qualified to lead the country will invite comparisons to Rick Scott. And it doesn’t help that the opening minutes of that 27 minute pro-Newt super PAC film bashing Bain is set in a washing machine plant in Marianna … Florida. But if Romney can make the “crony capitalism” charge stick to Newt, it could be a pox on both their houses. Advantage: Draw.
Florida has lots of Catholics, including among Hispanics, but also a large evangelical core that could split between Gingrich and Santorum. (There is also a small but growing Mormon community concentrated in the southern part of the state.) Will evangelicals overlook Gngrich’s marriage “issues” as they did in South Carolina, or will they, like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, be put off by the idea of an eight year “mistress” as potential first lady? It’s hard to say, but reportedly, a group of prominent evangelicals are raising money for Santorum, out of concern that Gingrich would be an inappropriate vessel for a family values message.
Evangelical voters in Florida will likely find Rick Santorum compelling (he kicked off his campaign by delivering a sermon at the church of a controversial, conservative black pastor on Sunday), the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition, which actively opposes gay marriage, recently held a “tele town hall” with Santorum, and the influential Christian Coalition of Florida’s 2012 voter guide appears to tilt away from Romney and toward the former Pennsylvania Senator. But since he lacks the money to really contest Florida, Santorum may not divide the religious right vote enough to stop Newt (or Callista.) And these groups are as much anti-Romney as they are pro-Santorum. Advantage: Gingrich.
The former governor has said he won’t endorse ahead of next week’s primary, taking the one figure with the stature to potentially make a difference statewide off the table. Bush had been rumored to be leaning in Romney’s direction’, having previously endorsed ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and his absence means the establishment has no A team on the field. Advantage: Gingrich.
As a final irony: once the curtain falls on the January 31 primary, the winner won’t be much better off in delegate terms. The national party penalized Florida Republicans half their delegates for jumping ahead on the primary calendar. So when Florida hosts the Republican National Convention n Tampa this fall, only 50 instead of 99 delegates will be seated.
In other words, Florida is not the end of the drama, it’s just the end of the beginning.
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport