(Gerald Hebert / Associated…)
The two times Newt Gingrich has gone into a state as a prospective front-runner, the arsenal backing Mitt Romney has shredded him, knocking him from his perch and endangering his candidacy.
It first happened in Iowa, but on Tuesday, Florida voters too showed they were susceptible to the barrage of ads from Romney’s campaign and the “super PAC” that supports him.
In exit poll data supplied by CNN, voters listed the ads as a significant factor in Romney’s win. Nearly 60% of those surveyed said the ads were “important” to their vote. And more than half said the ads were a “factor.”
Florida was unique in the presidential race so far, because a large chunk of the electorate had already settled on a candidate before the last two weeks of campaigning and many went ahead and voted. But for those who decided late, they went for Romney over Gingrich by 11 percentage points.
Gingrich clearly had some image problems in the Sunshine State, with some voters confused about where he stood. While 72% of those who backed Romney called the former House speaker “too conservative,” another 52% said they were voting for Romney because Gingrich wasn’t “conservative enough.” More than two-thirds of Romney backers held an unfavorable view of Gingrich.
Among voters who believed a "strong moral character" was the most important attribute for a candidate, Romney destroyed Gingrich, 46% to 8%.
Ads weren’t the only factor of course. Romney benefited from a voting bloc that, overall, was less conservative than the voters in South Carolina, who last month resuscitated Gingrich’s campaign by handing him a much-needed win.
While voters in South Carolina were hungry for a “true conservative,” that seemed to matter less in Florida, where Romney was again able to reassert his claim he’s the candidate Republicans trust the most to fix the economy. He was the overwhelming choice of voters (52% to 30%) who said the economy was their primary issue.
He also again benefited from voters’ impression that he’s the best Republican to take on President Obama in the fall, swamping Gingrich by 25 points in that category.
In that regard, Romney again showed strength with independents, who went for him by almost 15 points over Gingrich. And Romney annihilated Gingrich among self-described moderates or liberals, eclipsing him by almost 30 points.
He also did much better with female voters than Gingrich and, interestingly, picked up more support among Latino voters than did Gingrich, despite the fact that Romney’s views on illegal immigration are considered to be less forgiving than his rivals. (Florida’s Cuban American community, however, does not seem to view the immigration issue in the same light as Latino voters in other states.)
In fact, despite all the tough talk on immigration in Florida, only 3% of voters surveyed listed it as their primary issue, and Romney picked up support from those who want favor a more lenient approach to dealing with illegal immigrants and those who favor a hardline approach, such as deportation. Or, in Romney’s case, perhaps “self-deportation."
The bottom line: Camp Romney has every reason to feel good about the candidate’s chances as the whipsaw that was January comes to an end. The GOP race now quiets down a bit as it winds through a series of caucuses, starting with Nevada on Saturday.