By Luke Brinker
Mitt Romney’s rout of Newt Gingrich in yesterday’s Florida primary dealt a severe blow to Gingrich’s hopes of mounting a strong challenge to Romney’s nomination. A look at the exit poll data shows why. Romney won whites and Hispanics by decisive margins, dominated Gingrich among women, and won every age and income group. Romney even bested Gingrich among Tea Party supporters, upon whom Gingrich is staking the future of his candidacy.
Notable blocs among whom Gingrich beat Romney included voters whose most important issue was abortion, those who described themselves as “very conservative,” and those who thought “true” conservatism was the most important quality in a GOP nominee. But none of those measures were the most interesting aspect of the Florida exit polls. That honor belongs instead to the question of whether voters wanted more candidates to enter the race. Fifty eight percent said they were satisfied with the current field, while a sizable 38 percent said they would like to see someone else enter the race. (To understand why this is no longer realistic, click here.) Romney won 51 percent of those satisfied with the current crop, but he and Gingrich were much closer among voters who want a new candidate to toss his or her hat into the ring. Romney won 38 percent among this group, versus 37 percent for Gingrich.
If a sizable chunk of Romney supporters want a new candidate, doesn’t that portend ill for the putative front-runner? Actually, the numbers are far worse from Gingrich’s perspective. That Gingrich had such large support among voters dissatisfied with the current field suggests that many of those voting for Gingrich are doing so not out of a deep affinity for the former House Speaker, but as a vote of protest against the allegedly moderate Romney. That’s not exactly a recipe for staying power, particularly given Gingrich’s considerable personal and political baggage.
Many Romney supporters wish there were more candidates from which to choose, but this mostly reflects the falling-in-line effect. Few Romney voters love their candidate, but they judge him to be the strongest possible nominee against Barack Obama. Most of them probably realize that it’s logistically impossible for a new candidate to enter the race and secure enough delegates to claim the GOP nod in Tampa this summer. They may wish Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush or Bobby Jindal or who-have-you had opted to run, but they’re mostly resigned to backing Romney, and unlike the fickle hard-right voters who have gone from Palin to Trump to Bachmann to Perry to Cain to Gingrich to Santorum to Gingrich again, they’re not liable to change their votes.