As we get ready for tonight’s critical Republican debate, the polls in Florida are volatile, but the overall picture suggests Romney is gaining support while Gingrich stays flat.
On Monday, an Insider Advantage poll had Gingrich up 34.4-25.6% over Romney. Today, the latest InsiderAdvantage poll (taken yesterday) has the positions reversed, with Romney beating Gingrich 40.3-32.3% – a net gain for Romney of almost 17% in about four days. In looking at the crosstabs, I don’t see any major demographic differences in the two polls except for an increase in the number of younger Hispanics who responded to the most recent poll.
Meanwhile, a Rasmussen poll also from yesterday shows a similar dynamic with Romney gaining 8% in four days to lead Gingrich 39-31%. Santorum is at 12% and Paul at 9%. It appears, then, that Gingrich is holding steady in Florida, but that the undecideds are breaking for Romney – the mirror image of what we saw happen in South Carolina. It is tempting to attribute some of Romney’s gain to Tuesday’s debate performance, but although I thought Mitt did slightly better than Newt, particularly in the exchange over Fannie Mae, I can’t be sure that particular moment, or the debate more generally, is the primary factor driving the Mittster’s rise.
It may instead simply be the case that as voters begin paying attention to the race in these last days, they are moving toward that candidate who is closest to their political leanings. As I’ve noted before, Florida is a more diverse state, ideologically, than is South Carolina, and one that, on paper, looked more favorable to Romney because of the greater number of moderates and transplants from the North. Fully half the Florida respondents in this earlier PPP poll said they would not describe themselves “as Southerners”, compared to 48% who said they would. Romney led Gingrich among the non-Southerners by 37-33%, but trailed badly among southerners to Gingrich by 43-28%. Similarly, Newt has a positive favorable/unfavorable ratio among Southerners, but not among non-Southerners; the ratios are reversed for Mitt, who is viewed unfavorably more by Southerners.
Remember, Romney did relatively well in Florida in 2008, winning 31% of the vote compared to McCain’s 37%, and that was with Rudy Giuliani, who presumably might have competed with Romney for some votes, pulling down 15%. He did particularly well in the northeast portion of the state surrounding Jacksonville, as well as along the southern Gulf coast. On the other hand, Mike Huckabee, the conservative in the field, only pulled in 14% in 2008. Based on his earlier performance, and the state’s demographics, one would expect Romney to be the favorite coming into Tuesday’s primary. The big question was how much of a boost Gingrich might get coming out of South Carolina.
All this sets the stage for tonight’s crucial debate, the final one before the primary on Tuesday. (Yes, I’ll be live blogging the event.) Although Romney is gaining, the situation remains fluid, with both polls indicating that about 6-8% of respondents are still undecided, and about a fifth say they could still change their mind. One issue Gingrich should worry about is a pronounced gender gap among Florida voters; all three recent polls show him doing substantially better among men than women. I think he’ll need to have his “grandfather” credentials on full display tonight, with many references to his grandkids, daughters, and new found maturity. (Motto: I put the “New” in Newt.)
But I think he also needs a new response to Romney’s attacks on his lobbying for Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae. The “I was just a historian” response just doesn’t cut it. For starters, few historians get paid that much (to say nothing of political science professors, who often work for free – but don’t get me started). Perhaps the best defense is a strong offense, along the lines of “My work for Fannie Mae was similar to your work for Bain.”
Of course, Newt’s team complained bitterly that the “no applause” rule in effect on Monday’s debate prevented their candidate from building momentum based on the crowd reaction to the Newtism’s that played so well in previous debates. The lack of audible crowd noise was the equivalent of clapping with Mitts on. We’ll see if that policy is changed for tonight.
The debate is on CNN, starting at 8 p.m. As always, I invite you to join in the excitement. So warm your keyboards, locate the remote, and leave your mittens off. I’ll be on at about 7:50. Hope to see you then.