Gingrich trailed Romney in South Carolina by 10 points on Tuesday Jan. 17, just four days before the primary, but his strong debate performances on Monday and Thursday catapulted him into the lead at the last minute. By the morning of the primary, the RealClearPolitics poll average showed him leading Romney by 5 percentage points, and when the votes were counted Saturday evening, he won by a stunning 12-point margin -- a 22-point turnaround in the space of half a week.
Something similar seems to be happening in Florida. On Saturday, Romney led Gingrich there by a full 18 points in the RCP average, but on Monday, an Insider Advantage poll showed Gingrich leading by 8 points. If additional polls confirm Gingrich's lead in the coming days, he will have engineered an even more impressive comeback -- 26 points in two days -- than he did in South Carolina. That's quite a feat for a candidate who finished fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire and seemed to have lost the conservative mantle to Rick Santorum.
The Florida primary is still eight days away, and if this campaign has proven anything, it is that a lot can change in a short time. There is no telling whether Gingrich will maintain his newfound lead once the initial euphoria of his victory in South Carolina begins to fade.
On the one hand, there are two debates this week -- one in Tampa tonight and another in Jacksonville on Thursday -- and those will give Gingrich a chance to shore up his strength with more strong performances. On the other hand, Romney does have a number of fundamental advantages in Florida.
Florida Differs from South Carolina
A victory [in South Carolina] would give Gingrich a significant boost in Florida, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, on Friday. The Insider Advantage poll is already showing that boost. But, Sabato added, Romney has major advantages he does not enjoy in South Carolina, including a primary restricted just to Republicans -- a group that disproportionately favors Romney -- a massive population requiring the kind of expenditures only Romney can muster, and a statewide organization that has already banked many thousands of absentees for Romney.
Romney could also regain at least some of his lost momentum in Nevada, which will hold its caucuses shortly after the Florida primary. But back-to-back losses in South Carolina and Florida, particularly given that those losses would have been almost unimaginable even a week ago, would be hard to recover from under any circumstances.
It would be useless to make predictions at this stage in the game. The eight days remaining before the primary might as well be eight weeks, and any number of factors could intervene in the interim. As just one example, in the unlikely scenario that Santorum dropped out of the race before Florida, Gingrich would have a distinct advantage. The picture will become clearer in the coming days.