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The post-Florida presidential race

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After suffering a stinging defeat in South Carolina two weeks ago, Mitt Romney won big in Florida, assembling a large coalition of voters and proving that negative advertisement, and having lots of money, can in fact work in your favor.

The race for the GOP nomination now enters a new phase, with caucuses in Nevada and Maine over the weekend and, then, primary contests slowly moving across the country, starting with Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri next week. The almost obsessive media attention that single-handedly focused, in succession, on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, will from now on be spread among numerous races taking place simultaneously. This could change the basic calculations behind the candidates’ strategy. From now on, they will have to start counting delegates (1,144 are needed for the nomination) and try to exploit a system where certain states hand them out on a winner-take-all basis and others proportionally.  

Romney won a decisive victory in the Sunshine State with over 46% of the votes to Gingrich’s less than 32%. Rick Santorum took third place (13.4%) while Ron Paul, who had decided not to campaign here (his strategy only brings him to states where he thinks he can pick up delegates and Florida was a winner-take-all competition where he stood no chance) came last at 7%.

According to exit polls, the former governor of Massachusetts won almost all demographic groups (women, men, white and Hispanic voters, all age and income groups, Tea partiers, people who care about the economy as well as those who care about immigration.) He also dominated the crucial “electability” contest. 45% of Florida Republican voters said the most important quality they were looking for in a candidate was the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in November. Of these, 58% voted for Romney and only 33% went for Gingrich.

Taking advantage of his wide lead in Florida, Romney used his victory speech to pivot back to the general elections. He barely mentioned his Republican opponents and put a laser-sharp focus on President Obama. “President Obama wants to grow government and continue to amass trillion dollar deficits,” he said. “I will not just slow the growth of government, I will cut it. […] And, without raising taxes, I will finally balance the budget.”

This has been Romney’s favored strategy from the get-go, introducing himself to voters as the inevitable nominee and laying out his pitch for the White House. In South Carolina, however, this approach landed him in trouble when he was slow to respond to Gingrich’s attacks. Therefore, over the past week, Romney was forced to take a detour to deal with the former House Speaker, whom he steamrolled by blanketing Florida airwaves with negative advertisements.

The former Massachusetts governor and the super PAC that supports him, Restore our Future, unleashed a combined $15.4 million on radio and TV commercials, versus the $3.7 million spent by Gingrich and the Gingrich-friendly super PAC Winning our Future. According to some estimates, 92% of all ads that ran in Florida were negative. Of the total, 68% attacked Gingrich and only 23% were critical of Romney. At one point in the Florida campaign, Romney paid for 13,000 ads while Gingrich could afford only 200.

This is proof, somewhat reassuring for the Republican establishment and certainly worrisome to President Obama, that Romney is capable of going on the offensive when needed and has the money to do so successfully.

In Florida, the result was that Gingrich trailed badly with almost all constituencies, winning only the votes of very conservative Republicans and self-described evangelical and born-again Christians. Yet, in his concession speech, he sounded buoyant and undaunted, pledging to see his campaign through the convention and to prove that “people power will defeat money power,” a not-so-subtle reference to Romney’s deep pockets. The former House Speaker said this was now evidently “a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate.”

However, he faces a few obstacles on his theoretical path to the nomination. Not only does he lack the financial resources of the Romney campaign, which are going to be increasingly helpful as the race widens to the entire country, but he also won’t be able to take advantage of televised debates, which provide candidates with free access to voters, for a while (the next one is only scheduled for February 22nd.) Additionally, as a result of what has long been a disorganized campaign, the former House Speaker missed the deadlines to put his name on the ballot in a number of states, including his home state of Virginia, where he won’t be able to collect delegates. Finally, the contests scheduled for February (Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and Michigan) have, for the most part, a demographic and economic make up that should favor Romney. Gingrich will then have to wait until early March to try and take the southern states of Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, where more traditionally conservative Republicans comprise the majority of primary voters. The question is, can his campaign last until then?

Rick Santorum faces very similar challenges and has even less momentum. However, despite a distant third place in Florida, the former senator from Pennsylvania once again tried to cast himself as the real conservative alternative to Romney. “In Florida, Newt Gingrich had his opportunity,” he said. “He said, ‘I’m going to be the anti-Mitt,’ and it didn’t work.” Although calls for his withdrawal are growing, Santorum sees in a weakened Gingrich his best opportunity yet and he is not about to give it up.

Both Santorum and Gingrich are betting on the unpredictability of this primary season, which in a short while has already seen many twists and turns. They hope that they will get new opportunities to shine along the way. Romney, on the other hand, is trying to prove that South Carolina was only a small bump on the road and that he has now set his campaign back on track, ready to sail straight to the nomination.

In the meantime, a large number of Republican primary voters continue to be dissatisfied with the choices at hand. In Florida, 40% of them said that they would still like some other more appealing candidate to jump in the race.