If the most recent polls are accurate, it looks like Mitt Romney is going to get a much-needed victory in tomorrow’s Florida presidential primary. Rasmussen has Romney leading Newt Gingrich by 16 points, NBC has him up by 15 points, and Public Policy Polling has Romney up by 8 points.
What’s fascinating is how similar the Florida contest is to what happened in South Carolina. Two weeks ago, Romney came into South Carolina with all the momentum in the world. Polls showed him leading, and the media begin pushing a narrative that Romney could essentially end the Republican nomination fight with a win in South Carolina. Romney ended up getting beat badly by Gingrich.
Heading into Florida, the roles were reversed. It was Gingrich with all of the momentum. He had the big crowds and strong poll numbers to back it up. Yet after two lackluster debate performances, Gingrich’s momentum has stalled. Once again, we are reminded that it doesn’t matter how well a candidate looks as they come into a state, it’s how strong they finish.
There are more reasons for Gingrich’s struggles in Florida than just two disappointing debate performances. First and foremost, the state was never going to be easy for any of the Romney challengers. Florida is big and expensive. While Gingrich was putting it all on the line in South Carolina, Romney was advertising and implementing an early voter program in Florida. It was reported on Meet the Press on Sunday that Romney and his Super PAC have spent $15.7 million in Florida compared to the $3.9 million by Gingrich and his Super PAC.
Just like he did in Iowa, Romney and his Super PAC have used most of their resources to run negative ads against Gingrich. The Romney campaign has also dispatched surrogates to Gingrich campaign events in an effort to spin the media and talk to voters. The aggressiveness of the Romney campaign is something we have not seen from the Romney camp this year. While the tactics are questionable, it has been effective in knocking the Gingrich campaign off message.
The Florida campaign has disintegrated into nothing more than a childish food fight. Instead of debating issues, Romney and Gingrich have focused on negative personal attacks. Romney has called Gingrich undisciplined, unethical, and a risk for all Republicans on the ballot should he top the ticket in the fall. Gingrich has returned fire by calling Romney a liar and Massachusetts moderate who is no different from President Obama. Making matters worse is that backers of each candidate have also joined in to the fray.
Romney looks to be headed towards a victory, but it’s nothing that he or his campaign should be all that proud of. There is more division within the Republican Party today than there was two weeks ago. It’s not entirely Romney’s fault, but his quest to win no matter the cost may get him one step closer to the nomination, but in doing so, he could make winning in November more difficult.
In past campaigns, the party would quickly unite around its nominee even after a negative and nasty campaign. That might be more difficult after this contest since there is a real divide between the party establishment that is backing Romney and grassroots conservatives/Tea Party activists who tend to favor Gingrich.
A win in Florida will get Romney’s campaign back on track. A loss will hurt Gingrich’s standing in the polls. If that happens, Gingrich will need to target states in February that he can win to remain relevant just like Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Some in the media will once again want to anoint Romney the Republican nominee in waiting. However, the brutal nature of the campaign almost ensures that none of the remaining candidates are about to step aside.
With the upcoming contests including a handful of caucuses, Ron Paul will likely be a bigger factor. There are also states where Santorum can compete, and since neither Romney nor Gingrich want to talk about conservative issues, there is no reason for him to step aside any time soon. Gingrich has hinted that Santorum should step aside, but after watching the tenor of the campaign when it comes to Gingrich and Romney, Santorum is probably looking like a better option to some voters since he’s not participating in the food fight.
It’s becoming clear that whoever wins the nomination will have won a war of attrition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since the general election will be very similar, but the first thing he will have to do is try to heal the wounds from the primary fight.
At this point, it is difficult to see how Romney or Gingrich will be able to bring the party back together. Even though the nomination fight will continue past Florida, both Romney and Gingrich might be best served if they would engage each other on issues rather than personal attacks. If they continue down their current path, the Republican nomination is just going to be a bloodbath. And that is helpful to nobody.
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