USA 2012: Florida primaries 2012

Ten days after South Carolina, the race for the Republican nomination in the United States moved on to Florida on January 31. Florida is the biggest state to vote thus far. In terms of delegates, Florida held 5o delegates – it lost half of its delegates after the RNC penalized it for moving its primary forward. All delegates were allocated by winner-take-all, whereby the primary winner won all delegates.

Newt Gingrich came out of South Carolina with a decisive victory over Mitt Romney, severely halting Romney’s post-NH momentum and putting into renewed doubt his ability to win the nomination. South Carolina’s GOP primary electorate had been fairly representative of the GOP electorate in the rest of the conservative religious South, a region where Romney, whose conservative credentials are always placed in doubt, is the weakest. Romney could afford to live with a defeat in South Carolina, but understood that the Florida primary would be crucial for him. Florida is a Southern state in terms of geography, but in terms of culture, demographics and economy it is far more northern.

Gingrich came out of his South Carolina landslide with a major bump in polls in Florida, catapulting him into the lead. But his momentum proved to be short lived after Gingrich performed poorly in the first debate on January 23 and failed to perform any better in the debate on January 26. On the 23rd, Romney took back the advantage in Florida and his lead grew into the double digits following the final debates. Romney performed far better in the debates in Florida than he had in South Carolina, but Romney’s ability to turn the race around in Florida also lies on other factors. One of Romney’s major edge over all other candidates is his impressive warchest, and he used that warchest extensively in Florida to come out with hard-hitting attack ads on Gingrich, which severely hurt Gingrich’s campaign. Romney’s strategy was not to convince voters to vote for him but rather to convince voters that Gingrich is such an horrible person that Romney was by the default the most palatable option, and also the most electable option (which is still true). Gingrich also had a few missteps of his own, the most important of which was his declaration that he’d built a lunar colony if elected, a comment aimed at Florida’s Space Coast but which ended up being received as populistic pork-barreling and opportunism to win votes. Rommey’s strategy ended up being successful as Gingrich’s favourability numbers collapsed.

Florida was really a two-person contest. Ron Paul never put any effort into Florida, because it was WTA state where he had no chance at gaining anything tangible (delegates) unless he won the state. Paul is more interested in the February caucus state, where he is naturally stronger and where he has been placing lots of resources. Rick Santorum originally placed some effort into Florida and his strong debate performance on January 26 helped his numbers a but, but he quickly decided that it would be a better idea to campaign in Nevada ahead of caucuses in that western state on February 4. Santorum’s campaign was halted when his 3-year old daughter Bella, who has Edwards Syndrome, was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia.

Results and Conclusions

Mitt Romney 46.42%
Newt Gingrich 31.93%
Rick Santorum 13.34%
Ron Paul 7.01%
Others 1.3%

Mitt Romney won a decisive landslide victory in Florida. In doing so, he has put his campaign back on track after the accident in South Carolina and once again solidifies his claim to being the presumptive nominee. Indeed, with all his money and organization as well as his main opponent’s serial weaknesses, it is hard to see Romney failing to win the nomination at this point. Florida’s 50 WTA delegates places Romney far ahead of his rivals in the race for delegates, but even if Romney won all delegates still up for grabs, he would only reach the nomination (50%+1 of delegates) in April. The slightly slower primary calendar in 2012 compared to 2008 makes a longer nomination race more likely, even though Romney should still be able to pull out the nomination in the end.

Romney’s defeat in South Carolina was, from a certain angle, not too unsurprising. South Carolina was demographically unfavourable to him as it contained rather few of the voters with which Romney dominates and a lot of the voters who are the coolest towards Romney. Romney’s core base is basically more-or-less moderate affluent, older Republicans living in wealthy suburbs or similar places. South Carolina is a poor state which has few affluent suburbs with moderate Republicans who like Mitt. In contrast, Florida’s Republican base – especially in southern Florida – is generally old, affluent and more naturally inclined to support moderate-establishment Republicans like Romney. Romney has always done well with older voters (as well as the wealthiest voters), and Florida has a lot of old voters: those 65 and up made up 36% of the Florida electorate – the oldest electorate of any of the four states which have voted.

Romney also has another sizable advantage in his fight with Newt Gingrich. The February contests are generally said to be favourable to Romney and Gingrich is facing a tough race in almost all of them. If Romney can sweep February, which is not unlikely, he would place Gingrich in a situation similar to that of Hillary Clinton after February 2008, where she had lost many small caucus states and the Potomac Primaries to Barack Obama. A lot of these are caucus states (NV, ME, CO and MN) where Romney had performed very well in 2008, but that was because the conservative alternative to McCain and caucus electorates are well known to be very conservative compared to primary electorates. Romney doesn’t have the conservative caucus boost any longer, a boost which Ron Paul may have this year. Late February primaries in Arizona and Michigan should both favour Romney. Gingrich will be trying to remain viable until March, when a lot of Southern states favourable to him vote.

Ron Paul will try to mark February with a few victories of his own, perhaps in Maine, Colorado or Minnesota. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, will put some resources in the caucus states (Colorado, Nevada in particular) while also hoping to score a symbolic win in Missouri’s non-binding ‘beauty pageant’ primary where Gingrich is not on the ballot.

The next contest is on February 4 in Nevada, the first state west of the Mississippi to vote. Nevada had been very favourable to Romney in 2008, giving him 51% against Paul’s 13.7%. Romney had two advantages in Nevada in 2008, one of which he still has. Firstly, about a quarter of the GOP caucus-goers in Nevada are likely to be Mormons and Romney had won 95% of their votes in Nevada in 2008. Romney obviously still has this sizable advantage, which gives him an absolute floor of 25% or so. The second advantage he had in 2008 was that he was the non-Southern conservative alternative to McCain, and Nevada’s 2008 GOP electorate was the second most conservative electorate behind Iowa – 75% were conservatives. Romney won 56% of their votes in 2008, but only 37% of the votes from those who were moderates (beating McCain, who placed third in the caucuses, by 10 points). Romney has lost this conservative edge which is important in caucuses, becoming something of the 2012 John McCain. Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are better positioned to appeal to Nevada’s conservatives. Polls have been sparse and unreliable in Nevada, but Romney does not have the huge lead he had in 2008.

Exit Poll Data

As always, exit polls provide us with interesting conclusions about the candidate’s distribution of support. There was a pretty interesting gender gap: men backed Romney by only 5 points over Gingrich but women backed Romney by a full 23 points. In terms of age groups, Florida’s electorate was quite old: 18-29s made up only 6% of the electorate and even that Paul-friendly group backed Romney, although only with 41% against 25% for Paul. The older you are, the more likely you were to back Romney: he peaked at 51% support (vs. 34% for Newt) among those over 65. Remember that those 65+ voters made up 36% of the electorate.

69% of voters identified as conservative, against 31% who said they were moderates or liberals. In 2008, Romney had won conservatives with 37% against 29% for McCain – he even took 44% with those 2008 voters who were very conservative. This year, Romney won conservatives but only by 4 points over Gingrich, who won those who were ‘very conservative’ by 9. Moderates or liberals gave Romney a 39-point gap over Gingrich. 40% of voters were evangelical or born-again Christian, and they voted for Gingrich with 38% against 36% for Romney. In 2008, that same crowd had split 30% for McCain and 29% apiece for Huckabee and Romney.

Again, there was a perfect correlation between high income and high Romney support. While Romney won all income levels, he won only 42% with those earning less than $30k. In contrast, he won 61% with those earning over $200k, building a 37-point gap over Gingrich with that wealthiest 9% of the electorate.

Romney dominated the field with those voters who thought the economy was most important (52-30 over Gingrich) and also won those who felt the deficit was the biggest issue (41-34 over Gingrich). Gingrich won the 7% who felt abortion was the most important issue, taking 43% against 28% for Santorum. Romney gained back the edge over Gingrich in terms of electability, still the most important quality for GOP voters. He won 58% support among the 45% who cite a candidate’s electability in November as their top concern. In contrast, only 11% of those who felt that being a true conservative was the top quality backed Romney.

Debates and ads played a key role in Romney’s victory. As in South Carolina, debates were important for 69% of voters, but Romney won those voters with 42% against 34% for Gingrich. Campaign ads were important for 41% of voters and a factor in the vote of 71% of voters, and Romney clearly reaped the fruits of his attack ads. He won 59% of those who said the ads were important in their vote, against a mere 25% for Gingrich. Gingrich’s favourability numbers also show the results of Romney’s scorched earth strategy: a full 40% of voters had an unfavourable view of Gingrich, compared to just 20% of voters who had an unfavourable view of Romney. Another 42% said they would not be satisfied if Gingrich won the nomination, against only 31% who feel the same about Romney winning the nomination.

Geographical Analysis

Results of the FL primary (source: uselectionatlas)

There was a very apparent geographic divide in the map of the Florida primary. This geographic divide basically reflects the nature of the state. Florida, although geographically southern, is not a Southern state in the cultural sense of that capitalized term. In fact, only northern Florida is Southern while southern Florida is far more northern. The Florida Panhandle, which borders Alabama and Georgia, is geographically closest to the Deep South and shares similar economic, racial, cultural and religious traits. It is the most culturally Southern region, characterized by an old black minority in old plantation counties, racialized voting patterns, stronger religious faith and a long history of being a Dixiecrat stronghold – registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a significant margin in a number of white conservative counties in the Panhandle. The Panhandle, in short, is the only region of Florida which resembles the Deep South and the patterns we found last week in South Carolina.

Newt Gingrich clearly dominated in North Florida and the Panhandle. He lost only Leon County, home to Tallahassee, Florida’s liberal state capital and its affluent suburb; Bay County, dominated by the ‘redneck riviera’ resort city of Panama City and Okaloosa County, which besides the resort town of Fort Walton Beach includes a large military base. Romney also did well in Escambia County, which includes the big military and resort town of Pensacola. In the heart of the Panhandle, including those counties which basically form a circle around Tallahassee, Gingrich blew Romney out of the water. This rural conservative region, with no countervailing military or tourist influence, is also where Rick Santorum did well, winning over 20% of the vote. Unfortunately for Newt, Republican registration remains so low in those counties that rarely is the number of votes cast in those places over 1000 votes. Only 172 votes, for example, were cast in Liberty County which favoured Gingrich over Romney by a 43-25 margin. Gingrich also did surprisingly well in Alachua County, which despite including the liberal college town of Gainesville seems to have a fairly right-wing GOP base.

Newt Gingrich won all but two of the counties where a plurality of census respondents in 2000 claimed “American” ancestry, which is a good indicator of Southern culture as opposed to ancestries such as “German” or “English” which are reflective of northern or western whites. In South Carolina, all counties where “American” had been the largest ancestry voted for Gingrich. If this pattern continues, Gingrich is in strong position to to win the Deep South states and a good part of the Outer South states.

Despite outspending Gingrich 5-1 and hitting the air with series of attack ads, Romney’s money was unable to win him a breakthrough in culturally Southern Florida. The results in the Panhandle shows that Romney has a very real ‘Southern problem’ which could pose a threat to him in March, when states like Alabama and Georgia will vote. Romney actually lost ground compared to 2008 in nine counties, all in North Florida, including Duval (Jacksonville) and Bay (Panama City). Six counties which went for Romney in 2008 went for Gingrich, all those counties being basically in the greater Jacksonville metro. Jacksonville, with a black inner city and affluent white suburbs, is more reflective of Southern suburbia – heavily white and conservative in contrast to liberal black inner-city areas – than it is of moderate suburbia where Romney has done well so far. This should send a little chill to Romney, given that he had been able to win a lot of these conservative Southern suburbs around Atlanta and Nashville in 2008.

However, once we get south of culturally Southern Florida, we enter strong Romney territory, where Romney both performed strongest and where he picked up the most support vis-a-vis 2008. You can basically cut the state into two parts on the basis of this primary, with the Panhandle and North Florida backing Gingrich, while the bulk of Florida lying south of a line going from Jacksonville to Citrus County voting for Romney with minor exceptions. Romney won the conservative military-industrial complex region of the Space Coast (Brevard County), the retirement communities of the Nature Coast, Tampa-St. Pete’s affluent suburbs, the wealthy retirement communities of the Gulf Coast (Naples, Sarasota, Ft. Myers), the growing regions along the I-4 corridor (Lakeland, Orlando etc). Some of these areas, like the conservative affluent retirees (a lot of them from the Midwest) along the Gulf Coast, were natural ground for Romney. But other areas, like the I-4 corridor communities, would have been must-win areas for Gingrich if he was to have won. These middle-class white suburban areas are likely where voters were most receptive to Romney’s attack ads on Gingrich and who were more naturally inclined to support the electable option over the ideological purity option.

Gingrich won five counties in rural inland southern Florida, five counties which are pretty much the last remnants of traditional Southern culture in southern Florida. These counties, which have sizable black and Mexican populations, are still quite dependent on agriculture (hence why there are so many Mexicans) when the rest of the region is dependent on services, the military, tourism or white-collar industries. There is still a rural Southern conservatism to these counties, explaining why Gingrich won these counties.

Romney did very well in southeastern Florida, where Republicans tend to be old, moderate and affluent. He won over 50% in Indian River, Martin and Palm Beach Counties. His best result in Florida came from Miami-Dade, with 61% of the vote. The bulk of the GOP electorate in Miami is Cuban, and while the Cuban community is right-wing on the Cuban issue, it is more moderate on immigration and social issues. Romney had the backing of the Cuban GOP machine, led by Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, and the Cuban community has tended to support fairly moderate establishment candidates: it backed McCain very heavily in 2008, and Romney had done very poorly with Cubans in 2008. Santorum and Paul also won their worst results in Miami-Dade.

The race gets more unpredictable as it enters the notoriously hard to poll caucus states. Romney remains the favourite for the nomination, but that doesn’t mean that the fun is over.

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Posted on February 2, 2012, in Florida, Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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