In the wake of the Florida primary, the general consensus among political commentators is that Newt Gingrich’s campaign is like a zombie – dead, but still walking around.
Not so fast.
Those pundits are basing their opinions on the headline numbers, which make Mitt Romney’s victory look far more impressive than it really is. Yes, Romney beat Gingrich by 14%; the split between women and men was decisive (4:1, according to exit polling). Romney carried every significant demographic group, except white men. He won among voters who decided early on in the campaign – some 40% of the electorate said they decided who to vote for last year, and Romney won 83% of those votes. Most importantly, Romney takes all 50 delegates from Florida, a significant coup at this early stage of the campaign. Further, Gingrich cannot reasonably expect to do more than tread water during February. Of the six states holding nominating contests this month, four should be easy wins for Romney (Nevada, Maine, Michigan and Minnesota), one seemingly leans his way (Colorado) and only one seems competitive (Arizona).
But here’s what the pundits are missing: underneath the headline numbers, Gingrich actually acquitted himself quite well in preparing for a Super Tuesday showdown. To understand why, first; consider the way the election has proceeded thus far; second, take a closer look at the election return map from Florida.
Each candidate has demonstrated an ability to attract a certain type of voter. Romney has found core support among moderate and establishment Republicans. Gingrich’s support has come from the Tea Party and those that describe themselves as staunch conservatives. Rick Santorum is the choice of social conservatives and Ron Paul of the very young. Those characterizations were borne out in the three contests leading up to Florida – and when you look into the results, there as well. The moderate region in the southeast corner of the state (Miami/Ft. Lauderdale/Palm Beach) and the I-4 corridor primarily fueled Romney’s win. Romney’s margin of victory was around 241,000 votes; he outpointed Gingrich by 123,000 in the five counties that best define the area (Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and Hillsborough). Gingrich, on the other hand, easily won the conservative area of the state, loosely defined as the northeast corner and panhandle. In this, each replicated their wins in earlier contests – Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney in New Hampshire.
The best way to look at Florida is that it didn’t really settle anything. The deluge of advertising by Romney was able to firm up his support among his natural constituency but didn’t sway Gingrich’s base. Likewise, Gingrich’s attacks on Romney failed to persuade those who were predisposed to vote for the latter. The Republican Party has settled into two distinct factions, establishment and anti-establishment. As odd as it may be, the anti-establishment camp has settled on Newt Gingrich as their standard-bearer. And that doesn’t bode well for Mitt.
Why? Assuming some type of political bomb doesn’t explode between now and March 6th, Gingrich could conceivably wake up on March 7th with the lead in delegates. The math isn’t terribly difficult. There are 6 nominating contests in February, but they are relatively small states. Most are caucus states and all apportion their delegates, 183 in total for all 6. For good measure, both Paul and Santorum are going to campaign hard for delegates in the caucus states – those states represent a firewall for those candidates and their best opportunity to make a mark. So, assuming Romney wins 100 delegates in February (not far-fetched), that would give him 169 heading into Super Tuesday to Gingrich’s 80. But 11 states vote on March 6th, for a combined 466 delegates. What should trouble the Romney campaign (and by extension, the Republican establishment) is that of those 11 states, 7 of them have electorates that profile favorably for Gingrich. Those states combine for 293 delegates. Only two profile favorably for Romney, combining for a total of 58 delegates. 115 delegates will come from states that profile as toss-ups. It seems reasonable that each will capture large majorities of delegates in the states where they’re strongest, based on past history. If each captures 65% in those states, with the toss-ups splitting roughly equally, then the delegate count could easily be Gingrich 338, Romney 329, Paul 90. This is going on the big assumption that Paul stays in and Santorum drops out sometime in February. Based on the respective campaign finances and goals of those two (Santorum still sees himself as a contender, Paul seems resigned to leading a movement), it isn’t a huge assumption though.
What would a result along those lines mean for the Republican convention in August? Likely that it would be the first brokered convention in 64 years. Roughly 1/3 of the delegates are chosen by March 6th and extrapolating those results across the full party leaves no candidate with the 1174 needed for a first ballot victory. In fact, the two leaders would each be around 150 delegates short of securing the nomination. Besides being a dream come true for Paul (imagine Ron Paul holding kingmaker power in the Republican Party!), the personal animosity between Romney and Gingrich would boil over in a made-for-TV spectacular of epic proportions.