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First Thoughts: Why Florida differed from South Carolina

Five reasons why Florida’s outcome differed from South Carolina’s: 1) Money and the debates mattered… 2) Going negative against Gingrich works… 3) Momentum hasn’t carried from one contest to the next… 4) Florida’s less conservative electorate… 5) Geography and urban density… But a potential warning sign for Romney: Gingrich still held the core of the GOP… Another warning sign: 38% said they wanted another GOP candidate to run for the nomination… Breaking down the ad spending so far in Nevada… Romney Super PAC rakes in nearly $18 million in six months… And Dems win OR-1 special.

*** Why Florida differed from South Carolina: What a difference 11 days made in this presidential race between New Hampshire and South Carolina, and what a difference 10 days made between South Carolina and Florida… After Newt Gingrich pummeled Mitt Romney by double digits in South Carolina, Romney returned the favor last night, beating Gingrich by 14 points in Florida, 46%-32%. In fact, the contest -- just one month in -- looks like a fight right out of "Rocky," with Apollo Creed/Clubber Lang/Ivan Drago easily winning one round and then Rocky Balboa storming back in the next. But there are five reasons why the outcome in Florida was different than South Carolina. The first reason: Money and the debates mattered. In South Carolina, Romney and the top pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future outspent Gingrich and his allies by a nearly 2-to-1 margin ($4.4 million vs. $2.4 million). But in Florida, the margin was 4-to-1 ($15.9 million vs. $4 million). As for the debates, Gingrich -- unlike in South Carolina -- had two poor performances and Romney had two strong ones. Among Florida voters who said the debates were important to their vote, Romney won those folks, 42%-34%.

*** Going negative against Gingrich works: A second -- and related -- reason why last night’s outcome was different: Going negative against Gingrich works. We saw that first in Iowa, where Restore Our Future pounded Gingrich with negative TV ads, knocking down the former House speaker from first in the polls there to a fourth-place finish. But when the race moved to South Carolina, Romney and his allies took their foot off the gas, which paved the way for Gingrich’s upset there. And Team Romney has learned that lesson. Yesterday, for example, it held a conference call with Nevada supporters to once again deliver an anti-Gingrich message. It is worth noting that Romney and his campaign have done a superb job pummeling the GOP rivals who have emerged as a threat (first Rick Perry, then Gingrich). How effective was the negative ad campaign? Republicans (not ALL VOTERS) but JUST Florida Republicans gave Gingrich a 40% unfavorable rating. Stunning.

*** Momentum hasn’t carried from one contest to the next: Third, there has been no momentum from one GOP contest to the next. Yes, there have been temporary spikes in the polls, but consider: Rick Santorum was unable to parlay his Iowa performance into a strong showing in New Hampshire; Romney’s decisive victory in New Hampshire was followed by his decisive defeat in South Carolina; and Gingrich’s double-digit South Carolina win was followed by his double-digit loss in Florida. However, that no-momentum streak is likely to be broken this week in Nevada, where Romney is the clear favorite. And what if he sweeps February? None of the February contests INDIVIDUALLY carries the weight of the individual January contests. But, collectively, if Romney can put together a package of four, five or even six victories, it would add to the inevitability momentum. The states in February aren't chumps by any measure: Nevada, Maine Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona and Michigan are all on SOME presidential battleground maps. (Yes, we include Maine because the ONE Congressional District, thanks to redistricting is going to be in play even if WHOLE state is not).

*** A less conservative electorate: A fourth lesson from last night: The electorate in Florida was much different than in South Carolina. Yes, Florida resembles South Carolina more than it does New Hampshire, but chew on these exit-poll numbers: Four in 10 Florida GOP voters described themselves as evangelical Christians, and Gingrich narrowly won those folks, 38%-36%. But in South Carolina, nearly two-thirds were evangelicals, and Gingrich won them, 45%-21%. Also, a plurality in Florida viewed themselves as “somewhat conservative,” and Romney easily won over that segment, 52%-32%. But in South Carolina, a plurality viewed themselves as “very conservative,” and Newt easily won them, 48%-19%. Bottom line: Florida -- despite being a closed primary -- had a less conservative electorate than South Carolina did.

*** Geography and urban density: And a fifth reason why Florida wasn’t South Carolina: geography and urban density. Get this: Romney won almost a majority of his entire vote margin from just five counties -- Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Pinellas (St. Pete) and Hillsborough (Tampa). Of those five counties, Romney nabbed about 118,000 votes of his about 241,000 vote margin, or 49%. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach alone accounted for about 31% of his total margin. Bottom line: Tactically, Romney and his campaign ran a perfect race – winning with all of their strengths (money, organization, somewhat conservatives/moderates, and urban voters).

*** A potential warning sign for Romney: Gingrich still held the core base of the GOP: All that said, Gingrich still held the core base of the party, and that remains a potential warning sign for Romney. Among “very conservative voters” -- 33% of the electorate (compared with 36% in South Carolina) -- Gingrich won there, 41%-30%. Among evangelical voters Gingrich won, 38%-36%. And finally, 41% said that Romney isn’t conservative enough, and Gingrich beats him among those folks, 58%-12%. What’s more, while Romney did very well in Florida’s urban counties, Gingrich overperformed in the rural ones, particularly in the Panhandle. And those Panhandle counties look a lot more like the Southern states Gingrich will hope to win on Super Tuesday on March 6 and the following week on March 13.

*** Another warning sign for Romney: Nearly 4 in 10 GOPers want someone else to run: And this also has to worry Romney and his team a bit, too: 38% of Florida Republican primary voters said they’d like to see someone else run for the GOP nomination, versus 58% who said they’re satisfied with the field. It’s a striking number, because these are Republicans who TURNED OUT and voted. (Imagine how the Republican electorate as a WHOLE feels.) On the one hand, this signals that Republicans are enthusiastic about defeating Obama even if they’re not necessarily enthusiastic about their own field. On the other hand, these appear to be folks who want someone else other than Mitt Romney (however, Romney and Gingrich essentially split this dissatisfied vote). And these two numbers stuck out as well: 40% of last night’s voters had a unfavorable view of Gingrich, while 41% said that Romney isn’t conservative enough.

*** Ad spending breakdown in Nevada: As we now head to Nevada, here’s the ad spending breakdown there, according to Smart Media Group Delta: Restore Our Future $637,000, Romney $372,000, and Paul $350,000. Rick Santorum targeted Gingrich in his speech last night, and he has a TV ad up in Nevada that hits Gingrich, likening him to President Obama and Nancy Pelosi. “He doesn’t just talk a good conservative game,” an announcer says, “he lives it.” It’s unclear, however, if there is any money behind this Santorum ad.

*** Romney’s Super PAC rakes in nearly $18 million in six months: NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports that

top Wall Street moguls from big hedge fund and private equity firms -- including principals from Bain Capital -- topped the list of donors that pumped more than $17.9 million into the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future during the last six months of last year.  But while the filing by Restore Our Future shows its formidable fundraising prowess – considerably more than the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action’s $1.2 million -- it will do little to alleviate criticism that Romney is too closely tied to Wall Street and other corporate interests, Isikoff adds. Restore Our Future collected seven  $1 million donations, including one from Paul Singer, the billionaire and secretive head of the Elliott Management hedge fund, and two others from hedge fund kingpins Julian Robertson of Tiger Management and Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies.

*** Dems win OR-1 special: Also last night, Democrats won the special congressional election to fill the seat vacated by disgraced Dem Rep. David Wu (D-OR). Analysis from the Rothenberg Political Report’s Nathan Gonzales: “It looks like former state senator Suzanne Bonamici (D) defeated businessman Rob Cornilles (R) by roughly the same margin as a year ago when Rep. David Wu (D) defeated Cornilles by 13 points, 55 percent to 42 percent... But despite the partisan nature of the district, Democrats didn’t take anything for granted and believed that a loss would have been devastating to the national narrative about the fight for the House. In total, Democrats outspent Republicans on television about 4-to-1." The thinking for the Democrats: The risk of losing this special was just too great not to OVERpay for a victory. Losing would have hit the party HARD nationally on the fundraising front as Democrats continue to try and make the case the House is in play.

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: The day after the Florida primary, Paul visits Las Vegas NV (he celebrates his 55th wedding anniversary with his wife, Carol)… Santorum stumps in Colorado, rallying in Denver, Lakewood, Woodland Park, and Colorado Springs… Romney hosts a grassroots rally in Eagan, MN and then heads to Las Vegas, NV …And Gingrich also hits Nevada, campaigning in Reno and Carson City. 

Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 3 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 34 days
Countdown to Election Day: 279 days

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