If the polls are accurate, and so far they have been pretty reliable, Mitt Romney will beat Newt Gingrich in the Florida Primary by more than ten points. No, this won't mean that Romney has the nomination all wrapped up, but it will suggest that Gingrich is very unlikely to take it from him. Only a week ago Gingrich was leading in a handful of polls. What explains Romney's recovery?
Three things: first, Romney outspent Gingrich 3 to 1 in Florida, a place where the TV market is both necessary and expensive. Second, Romney has built a substantial organization in Florida. Third, the Republican electorate in that state seems to have come to the same conclusion that Republicans across the country are coming to: Mitt Romney might win a general election against Barack Obama; Newt Gingrich cannot.
It is the last item and not the first that is decisive. Romney outspent Gingrich 2 to 1 in South Carolina and lost by full lap. The relationship between money and organization is reciprocal. The former helps you build the latter, but the latter helps you raise the former. No amount of money can buy the following poll numbers reported by Gallup:
Mitt Romney leads Newt Gingrich, 59% to 39%, in U.S. registered voters' perceptions that each "has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have." Romney also has solid advantages for being "sincere and authentic" and able to manage the government effectively. Romney and Gingrich are about tied, however, on understanding the problems Americans face in their daily lives.
Registered voters in 12 key swing states are almost evenly split between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their 2012 presidential election preferences, while giving a 14-percentage-point lead to Obama over Newt Gingrich.
In short, Republicans tend to think that Romney is more electable and they look to be right, at least just now. They seem to be about to exercise prudence and moderation rather than spirit in their choice and that is very probably a good thing regardless of who wins.
What does the campaign look like, from this early vantage point? Obama has obvious advantages. The Presidency is an awesome institution. The President enjoys the majesty of the state and he has his own jet airplane.
What Republicans fear most is that Obama will turn out to be as ruthless and efficient as he was in his first campaign. For a sample of that, and for other things, I recommend Ryan Lizza's remarkable article in The New Yorker. Here, he reports on the Obama campaign's decision to attack Ms. Clinton personally during the nomination period.
Neera Tanden was the policy director for Clinton's campaign. When Clinton lost the Democratic race, Tanden became the director of domestic policy for Obama's general-election campaign, and then a senior official working on health care in his Administration. She is now the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, perhaps the most important institution in Democratic politics. "It was a character attack," Tanden said recently, speaking about the Obama campaign against Clinton. "I went over to Obama, I'm a big supporter of the President, but their campaign was entirely a character attack on Hillary as a liar and untrustworthy. It wasn't an 'issue contrast,' it was entirely personal." And, of course, it worked.
Politics is hardball and both sides will play to win. If anyone thinks that the Obama organization played nice or will play nice, that person is naïve. Here is another example:
On June 19, 2008, he announced that he would be the first Presidential candidate since 1976 to forgo public funds, which allow candidates to run in the general election while limiting the corrupting influence of fund-raising. This was an awkward and hypocritical decision, given that in 2007 Obama had explicitly promised that he would stay in the system. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, wrote in his memoir, "The Audacity to Win," that the promise had been a mistake: "We were overly concerned with making sure the reform community and elites like the New York Times editorial board, which care deeply about these issues, would look favorably on our approach." Obama, Plouffe noted, was "genuinely torn," but was eventually convinced that victory trumped idealism… From September 1st to Election Day, Obama outspent McCain by almost three to one, and, as many Republicans are quick to note, ran more negative ads than any Presidential candidate in modern history.
I find notable not only that "victory trumped idealism," not to mention the integrity of a promise, but that Obama's promise to stay in the public funds system was made not out of any scruple but in order to win over the New York Times. At any rate we know that Obama will do whatever he thinks he needs to do to be reelected and that his campaign organization last time around was adept at judging what he needed to do.
Putting these two considerations together, without even mentioning Romney's weaknesses, Obama looks formidable.
On the other hand, he also looks very vulnerable. Obama 2008 was all promise. The moment he became President, his powers of persuasion largely deserted him. Despite scores of speeches, he was unable to rally public support for his health care reform. If anything, support went down the more he talked about it.
Perhaps he will regain his moxy as the campaign goes on, but it hasn't happened yet and he has been campaigning full time. His approval rating at Gallup has risen above 50% only once, and that only briefly, since February 2010. So far his campaigning, including his State of the Union Address, has only managed a tie in approval/disapproval (46% to 47%).
The fact that he is currently tied with Mitt Romney doesn't mean much but it means something. Newt Gingrich has been throwing everything he has at Romney. Romney has been debating constantly and occasionally has made grave errors. Republicans have feared that their candidates are tearing each other down and so weakening the eventual candidate for the contest to come. What if they are right? If a tie with Obama is Romney's low point, he can start measuring drapes for the White House. Bear in mind that the national polls showing a tie are sampling registered voters, not likely voters. Generally Republicans do better when likely voters are sampled and those are the voters that count.
I am carrying no water for Mitt Romney. I have predicted he will be the Republican nominee and I haven't changed my mind. I make no predictions regarding the outcome. Looking at the situation right now, it does look like we have the makings for a real contest this November.