Posted on | January 23, 2012 | 39 Comments
The dateline is perhaps necessary to signify that, after eight days in South Carolina, I’m now back home and — thank you, tip jar hitters! — planning to make it to Jacksonville, Florida, for Thursday’s debate. Trying to assess the situation going forward, I want to caution against falling prey to the bandwagon mentality that headlines like this might engender:
There are legitimate and specific reasons not to jump to conclusions about what’s going to happen on Jan. 31 based on what the polls say on Jan. 23. Remember that the Rasmussen poll of Jan. 16 showed Romney leading by 14 points in South Carolina, where he lost by 12 points on Jan. 21. If polls can swing by 26 points in five days, then any poll lead Gingrich has eight days ahead of the Florida vote could certainly evaporate just as quickly.
Another reason for caution: Just got off the phone with Sunshine State Sarah, who is wired into the Florida GOP scene and insists that pundits in D.C. and New York are naively underestimating the depth and strength of Romney’s organizaqtion in Florida. Sarah reminded me that Romney endorsed Marco Rubio against Charlie Crist and — echoing an observation that Michael Barone shared when we were in New Hampshire — Romney has the Cuban vote in South Florida wrapped up tight.
Gingrich has very little organizational strength in Florida. Newt’s campaign there didn’t even exist until three weeks ago. And Sarah says the Romney team has been pushing hard for early voters, hitting them with mail pieces and phone calls. The pundits who are looking at the Florida race “from 30,000 feet,” as Sarah says, are missing a lot of the ground-level factors that favor Romney there.
On the other hand, of course, there is the possibility that we are seeing one of those tsunami shifts, with Romney’s support collapsing as suddenly and decisively as did Perry’s frontrunner mojo in September. When that kind of negative momentum hits a campaign, stopping the slide can be difficult, and the whole thing could snowball.
Consider the outside possibility that Romney could finish third in Florida. It’s a winner-take-all state, so there is no reward for placing second. However, if Romney can’t halt his negative momentum — if the debates tonight (8 p.m. NBC) and Thursday on CNN go badly for Mitt — his slide could be enough to permit Santorum to challenge him for third place. And if Romney is third in Florida . . . ouch.
That’s probably not going to happen, but ihis campaign has been nothing if not unpredictable so far, and it’s difficult to rule anything out. Sunshine State Sarah (she’s “Rumpfshaker” on Twitter) was pointing in the opposite direction: Romney’s organizational strength in Florida may prove an obstacle that no amount of “surging” by Gingrich can overcome it, no matter what the polls say eight days ahead of the primary.
Florida is a large and politically complex state, and trying to extrapolate the current trend as a predictor of the ultimate outcome is a risky proposition.
UPDATE: Evidence of my road weariness: I had previously omitted the word “not” from the sentence about “legitimate and specific reasons not to jump to conclusions.” Meanwhile, I woke up from a long nap today to find my phone ringing. It was Sarah calling, saying that the commenters were being wrathful about this grain-of-salt note of caution.
Key point: Sarah knows Florida GOP politics. She’s lived and breathed it for years. She was an early supporter of Marco Rubio’s campaign. So unless you’re a Floridian who wishes to match your own knowledge of the state against her, perhaps you should take a deep breath and consider the possibility that she knows what she’s talking about.
At the same time, the momentum factor working against Romney cannot be underestimated. He’s got to do better in debates, and he’s got to change the subject. Romney wasted time and money in South Carolina with TV ads attacking Rick Santorum, whom his advisers mistakenly targeted for more than a week, which abetted Gingrich’s rise. This time they won’t make that mistake.