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Tuesday 24th January 2012 | 11:16
The dead are rising – and they’re running for President
As soon as Newt Gingrich’s landslide win in South Carolina was announced by US networks, two ideas were put forward as gospel. Firstly, that this was an unexpected sensation – and secondly that, due to the vastness and expense of campaigning in the state, such a sensation would be impossible for him to repeat in Florida. Both are highly flawed.
There’s an almost zombie-like quality to Newt Gingrich’s political career. Just three years after leading congressional Republicans to their historic 1994 victory, he was censured by his own party for ethics violations, fined $300,000, booted out of the speakership and resigned his seat in the House of Representatives.
He finally emerged from the wilderness in March last year to launch his campaign. By June, however, he was floundering to such as extent that almost all his senior team quit. But strong debate performances and the collapse of the Bachmann/Perry/Cain campaigns, saw Newt surging back into the lead last November. His lead in Iowa led the Romney campaign to release a barrage of negative attack adverts successfully dented his momentum. He came fourth in Iowa caucus, fifth in New Hampshire and seemed doomed to drop out after an ‘inevitable’ defeat in South Carolina.
But, of course, it didn’t work out like that for undead Gingrich, as he thumped Romney by 12 points in the Palmetto state. You can easily imagine the former Massachusetts Governor’s campaign screaming “WHY WON’T YOU JUST DIE?” at their TV screens.
If South Carolina threw the Republican nomination into a chaotic uncertainty, it did at least settle one question once and for all: Newt Gingrich is the only viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney – a status no-one will now be able to take from him and one that will give him a solid vote in all future primaries and caucuses.
Granted, South Carolina is unquestionably good natural Newt territory. It borders his home state of Georgia and is a profoundly religious socially conservative redoubt of the Tea Party. He looks and sounds like just the sort of Republican the state has elected for a generation – and Mitt Romney, by comparison, an imposter.
But going into the next stage of this campaign, is Florida so very different?
Geographically, yes and no. The vast state divides into three parts (i) the Northern Florida and the Panhandle, bordering on Georgia and Alabama – socially conservative with a very white GOP vote, (ii) moderate Central Florida, including Orlando and Tampa, where Romney beat John McCain in 2008, and (iii) Southern Florida with its vast Hispanic, particularly Cuban-American population, and ‘snow bird’ transplants from the north, who include a large Jewish community – it is here that Romney did very badly against John McCain last time. Gingrich should romp home in the first of these regions (think of it as South South Carolina) and his Catholicism could play well in Miami, providing Senator Marco Rubio doesn’t endorse Romney (Rubio now enjoys one of the most powerful positions in this entire race).
Ideologically, slightly. While many commentators have stressed the state’s moderation in comparison to the rest of the South, just 38% of the state’s Republican primary voters in 2008 described themselves as ‘liberal or moderate’. The figure from South Carolina on Saturday? 32%. Smaller, yes, but not vastly so given Gingrich’s 12 point margin of victory – and Tea Party influence will undoubtedly make next Tuesday’s vote more conservative than its equivalent 4 years ago.
Indeed, the briefest analysis of the two candidates polling figures from South Carolina and Florida show a stark similarity, one that should terrify the Romney campaign. In both states, he has led for most of the past few months – with this in mind, South Carolina was not an unexpected sensation and Florida has never been solid Romney country.
It then all these things boil down to money? Just about every commentator has highlighted Florida’s 10 media markets; it costs roughly $1million to run just a single advert thoroughly. Indeed, Team Romney, who have been on air in the state for weeks, are spending $2.3million on between tomorrow and next Tuesday’s vote – this will then be combined with his Newt-blasting SuperPAC money. However much money Newt’s own side release (anti-Romney ‘independent’ adverts spent at least $3million in South Carolina), it seems unlikely the total will match Romney’s TV domination. He has so far spent nothing ‘officially’.
However, Gingrich’s win in South Carolina, like Santorum’s in Iowa, didn’t come down to cash, but to expertly playing to the opinions of the Republican electorate, including on TV. A positive Fox News cycle, based on some belligerent debating point, is likely to be significantly more effective than yet another campaign commercial or automated ‘robocall’. Indeed, John McCain was significantly outspent in his Florida victory over Romney in 2008, driven forward by momentum alone – the best and cheapest campaign tool in politics. In a political system dominated by billionaire-backed SuperPACs, the idea that debates can still change a campaign is encouraging – and, despite a slightly stale performance in Tampa last night, Newt remains a master of this medium. It will be especially interesting to see how he plays the release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns today.
Insider Advantage and Rasmussen polls, released yesterday, show Newt Gingrich with an 8 and 9 point lead in Florida respectively. It is clear that conservatives, so long divided across a range of ‘eclectic’ candidates, are coalescing around him.
Will he win in Florida? The odds remain stacked against him and the Republican establishment will do just about everything possible in the next week to derail his candidature, as they stare down the barrel of his vast unpopularity among the swing voters they need to win the general election. Perhaps most importantly, Team Romney has a formidable ground operation in the Sunshine State, as they did in Iowa and New Hampshire, that have been battle-ready for nearly five years. This machine has ruthlessly exploited the state’s early voting rules, meaning that Romney may have already been ahead by around 40,000 votes before Newt’s South Carolina bounce.
But the astounding story is that Newt Gingrich could win in Florida – and potentially set off a momentum that will bring terror to DC Republicans and delight to the Obama campaign. It is difficult to overstate the importance of next Tuesday's vote.
An edited version of this article appears on page 22 of today's CityAM.