January, 22nd 2012

Some important things about Florida worth paying attention to

– Liz Mair

The last 24 hours have seen just about every political pundit around the country weigh in with their thoughts about what will happen in Florida now that Newt Gingrich has decisively won South Carolina. Many of them are missing or glossing over some important facts, in my view, as they focus a bit too exclusively on things like momentum, debates, and existing polling (without broader context). This is a quickie post outlining what I think is being overlooked or treated with insufficient seriousness that might matter— and in whose favor each factor weighs. [intro]

1.     Money spent to-date

Florida is a big, expensive state, and TV advertising remains a primary tool for reaching voters (though campaigns and SuperPACs continue to spend on direct mail, too).

When we say expensive, how expensive? Campaigns probably need to budget no less than $1 million a week for voter contact, and perhaps more (this Reuters piece indicates that $1 million a week is the minimum, and anything up to $5 million a week might be required—for what it’s worth, more than $1 million a week sounds about right to me).

According to that same Reuters piece, the Romney SuperPAC has dropped $5 million into Florida since the middle of last month, about $4.4 million of which has gone on ads and mail that attack Newt on the same grounds that pro-Romney forces whacked him so effectively in Iowa.  The Romney campaign has also already spent big in the state; the Tampa Bay Times estimates the total amount already spent by what might be termed “Romney and friends” on TV at $7 million.

Why does this matter, when there are still eight days until the primary? The simple answer: Absentee and early voting (discussed further below).

Floridians who vote absentee actually began voting before last week, early voting began statewide on Saturday, and the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls indicates Romney was in a good position with those absentee and early voters, undoubtedly due at least in part to all this spending: He is, on average, about 20 points ahead of Gingrich.

That’s a big deficit to make up, even with the momentum Gingrich has coming out of South Carolina, especially when you consider that the Romney SuperPAC and the Romney campaign have the resources (and the rationale, now) to spend more. Gingrich’s SuperPAC is probably running low on funds (at least in the absence of another injection of cash by Sheldon Adelson), and his campaign is unlikely to have the money to burn that Romney’s does— unless its fundraising has experienced a truly phenomenal boom of late.

Advantage: Romney.

2.     Early voting

As noted above, Floridians who vote via absentee ballot already have been in a position to have their say for some time now, and per the Florida GOP, by Saturday night, about 185,000 primary votes had been cast via absentee ballot, with another 12,000 having been cast in early voting in the five counties not subject to shortened early voting periods. That all preceded Gingrich’s big Palmetto State win on Saturday, and the perception of “Newt-mentum” that now exists.

We know from at least one prior example, too, that votes cast before election day can play a big role: They arguably delivered the Republican nomination for governor in 2010 to Rick Scott (rival Bill McCollum actually did better than Scott on election day itself).

Romney, too, is comparatively well-equipped to chase down Romney absentee voters. Not only did the campaign aggressively target absentee voters in the first place, sending mailers to vast quantities of them, but Romney is generally regarded as having the strongest organization in Florida. That matters, when it comes to making sure those voting absentee and early who have indicated a preference for your candidate do in fact vote for him—and in the case of absentee ballots, making sure they put them in the mail, too. Gingrich does not appear to have had anything directly approximating Romney’s absentee operation in place, though he is surely working on matching it now.

This, plus recent polling in Florida that gives Romney such an overwhelming lead, probably explains why Priorities USA’s Bill Burton asserted on Saturday night that a Newt Florida win was “mathematically impossible.” Burton could well be proven right.

The flip side of this, of course, is that we also know of at least one presidential effort that banked on absentee/early voting in Florida to deliver a solid result that ultimately, well, never quite was: The Rudy Giuliani campaign. Team Rudy was obviously better organized in Florida, certainly than it was elsewhere, and on a numbers-of-campaign-offices alone basis, better than its rivals, too. According to the piece linked, Giuliani had 10 campaign offices in the state; Romney had seven; McCain had six. McCain of course won the Florida primary; Giuliani came third with 15 percent.

Advantage: Romney, but maybe not by as much as one would assume.

3.     Demographics, demographic-relevant characteristics, and where candidates stand the issues

A broad perception seems to exist in the media that Romney is the moderate candidate compared to Newt and that he should therefore fare better in Florida, a more moderate state than South Carolina. But that perception fails to take account of details pertinent to demographics, candidate characteristics relevant to those demographics, and where each candidate actually is on the issues.

Florida can essentially be split into three geographic chunks: The North, especially the Panhandle, where Republican voters tend to be more evangelical, conservative and white (and which is more conservative, generally); the South, where Republican voters are pretty urban, Hispanic and socially much more moderate (even liberal), especially on so-called “gay issues”; and the middle, which is mixed, and harder to uniformly characterize. The state has been hard-hit by foreclosures, though this is a bigger issue in the South. Unemployment remains high. The state is home to a lot of seniors, as everyone knows; according to Florida political guru Adam Smith, “half the electorate [is] likely to be at least 56 years old.”

Consider for a minute that we have one candidate who:

  • used to be (or is, depending on your level of cynical supposition) pro-choice;
  • used to be (again, or is, depending on your level of cynical supposition) quite gay-friendly despite six years or so of active advocacy for things like a federal marriage amendment and opposition to even civil unions;
  • has attacked his opponents for even a smidgen of moderation on immigration and “opportunity issues” (like support for Texas’ DREAM Act), and got endorsed in 2008 by Tom Tancredo;
  • is currently being attacked on radio by his opponent for being “anti-immigrant” and using Castro slogans;
  • has actively embraced Paul Ryan and stepped up to defend him, attacking an opponent who referred to the Ryan plan as “right-wing social engineering;”
  • is a former CEO characterized by his opponents as a layoff king; and
  • called for letting foreclosures “hit the bottom” (as opposed to supporting foreclosure relief).

Then consider that we have another candidate who:

  • has been regarded as pro-life, fairly consistently, throughout his (lengthy and high-profile) career;
  • has the same basic current stance on gay issues;
  • has taken a much softer, more moderate line on immigration;
  • called the Ryan plan “right-wing social engineering;”
  • has been lobbing said attacks on Romney’s business background; and
  • hasn’t made any statements that are quite as attention-grabbing and off-putting as the “hit the bottom” one mentioned above in relation to foreclosures.

I think the latter of the two is better-placed to appeal to a) seniors b) evangelicals and conservatives (on the abortion issue alone) c) folks worried about foreclosures and unemployment and d) Hispanics, even with it being recognized that Cuban-Americans are not the same as Mexican-Americans and do not vote the same way they do, but are still a voting bloc that tends to favor moderation on immigration policy.

Incidentally, the latter point is one that Romney probably should have learned from his 2008 experience. As the NYT’s Nate Silver pointed out yesterday, last time around, Romney performed rather well with white Floridians, but he lost the state because John McCain really outperformed him with Hispanics. As if it even bears reminding people, McCain was famously the co-author of the “amnesty” bill that Romney came out swinging against then. Romney’s tone hasn’t changed much since 2008, on my read—perhaps one reason why he didn’t get the endorsement of Jeb Bush when it was rumored to be imminent the other night.

Advantage: Gingrich.

4.     The identities of the candidates

Thus far in the contest, Romney’s primary argument to Republican voters has been “electability” (hey, all the big names in DC seem to think he’s really electable; after all, they keep endorsing him!). His secondary argument has been “business experience.”

But as we saw with the South Carolina primary, voters aren’t necessarily buying the electability claim (certainly, those in the Palmetto State did not). This is probably a result of:

  • Romney’s incredibly bad handling of the tax return matter;
  • blistering attacks on Romney over Bain Capital by Newt and others (which while involving characterizations Republican voters may not overwhelmingly agree with, they probably do recognize as likely to be a) persuasive with must-get voters in a general election and b) well-aired by virtue of the Obama machine’s money and platform, should Romney be nominated); and
  • ongoing scrutiny of Romney’s flip-floppery on a host of issues.

Meanwhile, as noted above, those voters who have suffered greatly in the recent economy probably aren’t convinced that Romney’s business experience is an asset (South Carolina exit polls showed that Romney performed well with richer, more educated voters, but not poorer, less educated ones—the kinds of folks who anecdotal evidence suggests get nervous when they hear about someone making $300 million from a business that laid off a lot of people).

So expect to see extremely rich, somewhat awkward and weird, philosophically rudderless establishment layoff guy matched up against, well, Newt, a man with issues of his own (to put it politely), which Romney will seek to ensure loom even larger in voters’ minds than they do already.

Foremost among these will be that of Newt’s ethics. We’ve already seen Romney’s campaign make an issue of his ethics violation reprimand (in a stunt I have to commend the Romney folks for). We’ve also seen calls for making all the ethics investigation papers public (the actual report is already available on the interwebs, contrary to what some Romney boosters would have you believe). The Romney folks are also looking to make even more of an issue of Newt’s work for Freddie Mac.

As I have said elsewhere, I generally treat ethics as a trump card above all others in politics (see entry #4 here for a taste of why). People will vote for someone they disagree with philosophically, but few voters can easily stomach voting for someone they believe to be a straight up crook (I should clarify I am not saying Newt is one).

But while I don’t want to unfairly diss the Sunshine State, I think it’s possible that Florida voters may be somewhat inoculated against ethics-related attacks on political figures at this stage because, well, so many of their very own have had (or been alleged to have) ethics issues over recent years. (For starters, let’s just throw out there that Mark Foley was from Florida, as is Alcee Hastings).

Also, I suspect that few voters consider Romney to be the kind of highly principled political figure you generally prefer to make an ethics (or really any other) attack, if it is to stick. This is a guy generally perceived as having an unmatched, Olympic gold-caliber degree of philosophical flexibility, a guy who will literally say anything to get elected. His ethics as a businessman have also been called into question (including on the air by AFSCME), undercutting both of his arguments for nomination, but most potently, in my view, the electability one, which was his strongest card to play (even if yours truly has always considered it an incredibly weak and unsubstantiated card).

Add to this the perception mentioned above that Romney is the candidate of the inherently untrustworthy (in the mind of your average GOP base voter) Washington establishment, and you have another Romney attribute that is likely to make a decent chunk of voters unsympathetic to hearing any of his anti-Gingrich arguments, right from the get-go. At the end of the day, there’s a perception that the powers-that-be keep pushing Romney; the base doesn’t like this and many base voters are more inclined to instinctively respond like this.

Advantage: Neither. 

The bottom line here: I still think Romney holds advantages heading into Florida, but I think the much discussed Newt-mentum, combined with some of the other above-mentioned factors, means he doesn’t have a lock on the state, as it stands today. It will be interesting to have a look at those first Florida polls, post-South Carolina. They will give us a good indicator of just how hard Romney is likely to need to fight over the next week to prevail in the biggest and most diverse state yet. 

UPDATE: PPP tweets tonight that after their first night of polling, they find Gingrich and Romney neck and neck (but with Romney ahead by two, out of a total sample of about 600). PPP's numbers the night before South Carolina looked pretty close to the final outcome, for what it's worth. Looks like the money spent to-date bought Romney relatively little, so far as not-yet voted voters are concerned.

Expect Romney to start hitting Gingrich extra-hard immediately (apparently my former client, Tim Pawlenty, will be up to bat whacking Newt tomorrow), potentially to great or limited effect, depending on the salience of some of the other factors mentioned here, as well as the real strength of Newt-mentum.