With a bevy of polls showing Mitt Romney with healthy leads of anywhere from 8 to 20 points over Newt Gingrich in Florida, there seems little doubt he will win today’s Republican primary there. But with both Romney and Gingrich campaigning hard down to the last day, both camps are aware the margin of victory for the former Massachusetts governor will have an impact on the rest of the GOP race. Romney needs to meet or exceed the high expectations that have been set for him in Florida, because any slippage significantly below a double-digit margin will allow Gingrich to claim a moral victory of sorts that will encourage conservatives to believe the frontrunner can be slowed if not stopped.
While a decisive Romney victory tonight will not force Gingrich or Santorum out of the race, it will make it harder on them to argue they still have a viable chance to be the nominee. With no states on the horizon where either “non-Romney” has much hope of winning and with no debates scheduled for weeks, the aftermath of a Romney romp in Florida could be challenging. In particular, if Gingrich fails to keep it close, it could make it more difficult for him to persuade the major donors who have kept his campaign alive to go on pouring millions down the sinkhole of his campaign. Absent some signs of a rebound from his poor debate performances last week, it will make it appear as if the only point of Gingrich’s candidacy is to cripple Romney, something that will help President Obama in the fall more than it will advance the cause of conservatism he claims to champion.
It should be stipulated that if there is anything the first month of caucus and primary voting in 2012 has shown it is that momentum in politics is a meaningless term. The winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina all fell flat the next time out. But Florida will be a slightly different proposition mainly because it is the first big state to hold an election and also because of the lull that will follow.
The caucuses in Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota (and the non-binding primary in Missouri) that will take place in the following weeks are important. But they will not get the same attention as the first states with primaries. The next major test will come on Feb. 28 when Arizona and Michigan voters head to the polls, and though a month can be a lifetime in politics, both states look to be favorable for Romney. That will leave the challengers needing to hang on until Super Tuesday on March 6, where Gingrich must win a majority of the southern states in order to have any shred of hope he can win the nomination.
By lowering Romney’s margin of victory in Florida, Gingrich can make the long wait until Super Tuesday bearable. But if he is beaten decisively, it will make Romney all the more formidable in the weeks to come. It might also encourage Rick Santorum to stay in the race in the hope that a Gingrich implosion will leave him, and not the former House Speaker, as the last “non-Romney” left standing other than libertarian extremist Ron Paul.
But leaving aside the impact of Florida on the likely losers, a big win for Romney in a big state will lock in the perception he is the most electable Republican. In the past week, Romney has bested Gingrich in debates and shown that he can land as well as take a punch in the form of negative advertising. If he follows that up with a big Florida win, the idea of his inevitability will become more than merely a talking point for his supporters.