Against the backdrop of three polls released today showing Mitt Romney with a double-digit lead in Florida, the New York Times ran this story purporting to show how a change in campaign tactics resurrected the Romney campaign, which had faltered in South Carolina. According to Romney aides, the key to Romney’s resurgence was a change in tactics designed to attack Gingrich’s vulnerabilities and rattle him psychologically. The authors, Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny, write: “The results of that strategy, carried out by a veteran squad of strategists and operatives assembled by Mr. Romney to deal with just this kind of moment, have been on striking display here. By this weekend, Mr. Romney’s aides were on the offensive and increasingly confident, with some combination of their strategy and Mr. Gingrich’s own performance swinging polls in Mr. Romney’s direction.”
The Times story fits with the media’s more general tendency to emphasize candidate tactics and personalities as the primary influences on electoral outcomes, but as with most of these stories, it incorrectly downplays the more important factors that are behind Romney’s Florida lead. The first, of course, is demographics. Florida is not a typical southern state. Indeed, as I noted in an earlier post, more than half of likely Republican voters there do not consider themselves “southern”. Many, in fact, are transplanted New Englanders with moderate political leanings closer to that of New Hampshire voters.
Romney also leads Gingrich among Florida’s sizable Hispanic population, 52-28%, despite the harsh rhetoric he has employed regarding restricting illegal immigration. (In 2008 Hispanics made up 12% of the Florida vote.) The reason is that the immigration issue is much less salient among Puerto Ricans and Cubans, the two largest elements in Florida’s Hispanic population. Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, can settle in any state, and Cubans benefit from the U.S. policy that gives them a pathway to citizenship if they make it to American soil. So for most Hispanics, the issue driving their vote is the economy, and Romney does well among them on this point.
Although Gingrich continues to beat Romney among Tea Party supporters, at about 30% they are a smaller group, proportionally, than they were in South Carolina. Finally, Romney consistently runs stronger than Gingrich among older voters, who – at almost 40% of likely Republican voters – constitute a much bigger slice of the electorate in Florida than in other states.
For demographic reasons alone, then, it would have been a major upset if Gingrich had won here. Although he led in the initial polls coming out of South Carolina, that was before Florida voters began zeroing in on the race and actively engaging in deliberation between the candidates. Any hope that Gingrich might parley his South Carolina success into a victory here was probably squashed by the second most important factor influencing election outcomes: money. Between his campaign and the SuperPacs buying ads on his behalf, Romney has outspent Gingrich on advertising alone in Florida by about $15 million to $3 million. In a state this large and diverse, where retail politics is a lot less practical, it becomes difficult to overcome that disparity in spending. And Gingrich didn’t.
In the Times article, much is made about how a change in debate coaches and superior opposition research enabled Romney to blunt Gingrich’s previous advantage in these events. Although the debates certainly didn’t help Gingrich, there’s not any evidence that they contributed to Romney’s polling surge either. In fact in this NBC/Marist College poll Romney actually lost support after Thursday’s debate; his lead over Gingrich remained essentially unchanged because Gingrich also saw his support drop by about the same 3-4%. If anyone benefited from the debate, it was Santorum who gained 5% in the polls.
All this is not to say the change in Romney’s demeanor and tactics had no influence on the polling in Florida. Along with the orchestrated attacks on Gingrich from leading Republicans, ranging from John McCain to Bob Dole, it probably had some marginal impact. But it almost certainly was not as big as the front page story in the New York Times would have one believe. And it serves as a reminder that you should be skeptical when the Times and other major news outlets begin dusting off their Romney inevitability stories after Tuesday. As always, there will be the results, and there will be what the punditocracy say are the results. The two are not the same.