The State of the Race in Florida, Post-Debate II

Two new Florida polls, one commissioned by SunshineState News, and the  second by Quinnipiac, came out today, and both show Romney leading Gingrich by identical 9% margins, 40-31% and 38-29%, respectively.   Both polls were conducted prior to last night’s debate.  But nothing I saw last night persuades me that it will change the general polling trend, which since Monday’s debate has favored Romney.   As I noted at the conclusion of last night’s event, and which many of you picked up on in your comments, Gingrich was not at his best.  Although he scored some points, he was on the defensive most of the night, and even his attempt to score points at the media’s expense  – a favorite tactic – did not work last night, as Wolf Blitzer was prepared for Newt and did not back down.  In the end, the audience turned on Newt during that particular exchange.

I think at least some of the blame for Newt’s less-than-stellar performance, however, has to be credited to Mitt. Whether it was his new debate coach, or some other factor, he came into the debate with a game plan – attack Gingrich – and he executed it well, if not flawlessly.   Yes, he occasionally revealed his ham-handedness in interpersonal relations, but it was also clear that he was better prepared than Newt, thanks in no small part to better opposition research.   This was one of those organizational factors which was supposed to be Romney’s strength, and it showed last night, when Newt thought he had scored a point in citing Mitt’s investments in Freddie Mac, only to have Mitt tit-for-tat Newt by citing the latter’s investments in the same mortgage company.  That blunted some of Newt’s strike, and really set the tone for the debate.

Let’s be clear here:  Florida was always Romney’s state to lose.  Newt’s only chance was to build off his South Carolina victory with two strong debate performances in order to offset Mitt’s superior organization and resources.  Remember, Mitt has been running television ads in Florida since before South Carolina, and he had a 20% lead in most polls prior to Gingrich’s victory.  Even with two strong debate performances I wasn’t sure Newt could pull this out.  At this point, however – unless I’m missing something – Romney is going to win this by a margin similar to Newt’s victory in South Carolina.

About the only other factor that might upset this outcome is Rick Santorum dropping out and endorsing Newt. Santorum had a very strong performance last night, leading some on-air pundits to speculate that he might have resurrected his candidacy.  But he has run, to my knowledge, no television ads whatsoever in Florida, and in a winner-take-all state (at least so far – there is some debate about whether that might change), he will receive no delegates here.  Indeed, beyond the visibility afforded by the national debates – and the chance to visit his remarkable youthful 93-year-old mother, there is absolutely no incentive for Rick to invest any resources whatsoever in Florida (again assuming they retain the winner-take-all delegate format).   He’s polling at about 12% – that may increase a couple of percentage points as a result of last night, but he’s not in any danger of winning there.   This was all about the road ahead, and I persist in thinking that road leads to only one destination.

So where does the race stand?  Political scientist John Sides posted this self-deprecating piece recently in which he imagined a conversation with a fictional “cranky reader” who took him to task for his failure to adequately forecast how the Republican nomination race was playing out.  And while I have disagreed with John on some aspects of his analysis – particularly the idea that the winnowing of the Republican field would benefit Romney – we shouldn’t lose sight of his larger point.  Journalists, by necessity, must chronicle the daily ebbs and flows of the nomination race, something I pay attention to by virtue of posting on a daily basis (and which I mostly critique.)   As a political scientist, however, John is really taking a longer view of this race, and everything political scientists think they know regarding the nomination process has indicated from the beginning that Mitt Romney should be the eventual nominee.   That’s John’s view and nothing that has happened so far suggests his long-range forecast is wrong, even if the race may not have played out exactly as some of us anticipated.   Contrast that with the bandwagon effect playing out in the punditocracy, which first had Mitt coronated, then after South Carolina was breathlessly speculating about a brokered convention, and after next Tuesday will likely be back to coronating Mitt again.

Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes.  The nomination process is inherently more fluid, and hence less predictable, than the general election.  But it is not a random process – political scientists have some ideas regarding which factors tend to exert the greatest influence on outcomes, even if we aren’t completely certain how they interact over a sequential process that stretches across many months.  Sometimes new variables – say, 18 debates in which one individual generally is superior – can alter the course of the process, at least in the short-term, in unpredictable ways.  But that doesn’t mean we start from scratch every four years and build a new forecast model.  It’s still all about the fundamentals. I’ll develop this notion in a separate post.

A final point.  I have long pushed back against the idea that an extended nomination fight will weaken the eventual Republican nominee by providing fodder for Democrats to use in the general election. Instead, I have said a lengthy process can only strengthen the eventual winner. Last night provides evidence supporting my argument.  Romney has sharpened his defense of what were potential weak points regarding his taxes, and his work at Bain.  He has also become a better debater – as I noted above, Newt struggled in part because Mitt was more effective at parrying Newt’s now somewhat predictable thrusts.  If Newt is to stay in this race, he has to elevate his game as well.  This will be harder to do in the absence of more debates, and with fewer resources on which to draw.  But he has no choice if he wants to remain competitive.

Less than five days before Tuesday’s Florida primary.  Are there any surprises yet in store? Stay tuned.

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