With the Florida primary five days away, the Republican field is still in flux. Newt Gingrich seized the momentum in a big way after his upset victory in the South Carolina primary, making up a nearly 20-point polling deficit in Florida practically overnight, but Mitt Romney has regained strength, confirmed by Insider Advantage and CNN/Time polls conducted in recent days.
Gingrich and Romney are in a dead heat now, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum far behind. Charles Zelden, a historian at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, outlined who holds the edge going into Florida and what factors will determine the outcome next Tuesday.
Zelden specializes in legal and constitutional history and the election process. He has written several books, including Bush v. Gore: Exposing the Hidden Crisis in American Democracy, about the 2000 election crisis in Florida.
IBTimes: After Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, he very quickly jumped into the lead in Florida. But now that a few days have passed, Mitt Romney is back in the lead in most polls. Who do you think is more likely to win next week, and why?
Zelden: It depends who shows up to vote. Florida, unlike South Carolina, unlike New Hampshire, unlike Iowa -- the Florida GOP is not uniform. It's a very diverse body. South Florida Republicans are very different from North Florida Republicans in terms of their ethnicity, in terms of their attitude, in terms of their needs. There isn't one Republican group that's going to vote. Gingrich's effort is to reach out to the far right of the Republican Party, the more conservative element. The problem is that there's a larger chunk here in Florida of more mainline, establishment Republicans, and if they come out to vote, they're more likely to vote for Romney.
The worst thing to be in the Republican primaries this year is the leader. Every time someone is deemed in front, they get torn down. We're seeing a bit of that happening with Gingrich now. But I think in the end, what's really going to determine who wins is Republican voters voting with their feet. Is it North Florida voters who come and vote? They're more likely to vote for Gingrich. Are they people from the cities, the businessman-type Republicans? They're more likely to vote for Romney. And then there's the confused Republican who's not quite sure which way to jump. Romney is not a particularly likeable candidate, but Newt doesn't seem like a serious candidate. He's got so many negatives -- everyone is simply assuming Newt can't win. Do you vote for the guy who maybe speaks to some of your conservatism, but who can't win? Do you vote for the guy you don't really like who might be able to win?
You have to appreciate just how big a gap it was [for Romney] to say, you know, the banks are hurting too in Florida. He was in southwest Florida when he said it. I'm near Fort Myers, and something like two-thirds of the homes in that area were either in foreclosure or underwater on their mortgages. That area was devastated by the housing bubble bursting. In many cases, the reason these people got caught up in this was, they got loans they shouldn't have. They're seeing some flaws in his campaign. To say that the bankers are hurting too -- to these people, the bankers are the enemy, the bankers are the bad guys. Part of the reason they've been hating Obama so much is because of the perception that Obama bailed out the bankers -- which is part true and part not true; if you'd let the banks collapse, we'd be in a depression right now -- but for many people, what they see is Obama backed bankers, bankers are the enemy. And here's their candidate saying bankers are hurting too? It's a major-league faux pas in Florida. Our boom was based on housing, and when the housing bubble burst, everything went away, which is why we still have an unemployment rate above the national average. They go, how can I vote for a guy like this, who just doesn't understand?
On the other hand, you look at Gingrich, who has high negatives [in polls], who you're being told cannot win the general election and probably can't get the nomination, and who himself has some trouble when he was working for Freddie Mac as a historian. As a historian, I want the sort of gig he got. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for giving historical advice? Yeah, right. He was selling influence. ... So in a sense, Republicans are sitting here thinking, is this the best we can do?
Their No. 1 priority is, we want to beat Obama. But I see a possibility of a relatively small turnout, of a lot of Republican voters saying: Screw it, I'm not going to bother voting. You might see more of them starting to vote for Ron Paul, who isn't even campaigning here. Ron Paul is going to pick up at least 9, 10, 12 percent of the vote in every state he runs in. But if he starts pulling more, if he's up by 15, 16, 17 percent, then that's a protest vote, some of that.
Who will win will depend on who shows up. I don't know what sort of ground game Romney has in Florida. I know Gingrich has none. He has no organization in Florida. He's running completely a wholesale campaign, TV, media and of course the debates. If Romney has a good organization that can get out the vote, then that might actually be enough to get him over the top. I think it's probably going to be a close vote. I'm not seeing that rush to Newt, but the anger and frustrations that fueled that in S.C. are in play here in Florida. It's just, because Newt is now becoming a serious candidate, people are second-guessing, do I vote for him or do I not vote for him? Why isn't there someone I can vote for who I can want?
Florida gambled when they moved the primary up so far. They gave up half their delegates to be the fourth primary, so we could have an impact in choosing who the candidate would be, and we won the gamble. But part of the reason you don't want to see Florida so early is because running in a Florida primary is like running in a general election. You got a diverse spread of voters, 11 media markets -- if I want to drive from where I live all the way to Pensacola, it's a 12-hour drive without leaving the state. It's a massively large state. It has all those problems, and it's a very diverse state. This is one of the few states where you know you're going to get a large number of Latino [Republican] voters. But their concerns don't always mesh well with the more social conservatives in North Florida. North Florida is South Georgia. It's the one state where the more north you go, the more Southern it gets.
I have no idea who's going to win, because it's such a mess, and because both candidates -- if it comes down to, I'm going to vote for the person who's closest to who I want Republicans to be, then I think it'll be Gingrich. If it's, I'm going to vote for the person who, flawed though he is, has the best chance of winning the election and going after Obama, then Romney. But Romney is proving to be a very bad campaigner here in Florida. He kept on holding off on giving out his tax returns. He should have done that years ago and gotten it on the table and said, 'Yeah, face it, I'm rich. I earned it. I only paid this in my taxes: that's the law. I'm simply doing what the law allows. And because I have this income, I can invest in other businesses that result in jobs being created.' But since it's coming right when the president gives his State of the Union address, talking about fairness, and then to start making the [argument that] corporations are people too and bankers are really hurting -- that just isn't going to play to pissed-off people who are feeling hurt by this economy.
There are many Republicans who blame Obama for the economy, but they're also going to look at their candidates and say, is this a guy who's going to fix it? Is this a guy who's going to fix my problems? Newt emotes better; he creates an emotional tie with people better than Romney. People don't feel warm fuzzies for Romney, even when they support him.
IBTimes: Gingrich has tended to do better in debates than Romney has, and the debates last week have been largely credited with helping Gingrich win in South Carolina. How much of an impact do you think this week's debates will have on the results in Florida?
Zelden: Gingrich's only way of getting his word out is free media and the debates. Yes, he's got a $6 million buy for ads playing in Florida, trashing Romney. But in terms of making a positive argument, this is where he's making his argument. He has no organization that he can work off of, he can't get people on the local level working on his behalf. They [debates] are more important to him than to Romney, but he's coming into these debates now as the favorite, which means everyone is now piling on him, and that gave room for Romney in the last debate to pull his own.
This last debate [on Thursday] is going to be in many ways key. If Romney can hold his own, he's neutralized Newt's strongest weapon. If Newt can get angry and connect to the anger of the Florida Republican voter, then Romney's in trouble.
I'm actually shocked that this new model of having so many debates in the early election cycle -- that they're having such an impact. Traditionally, debates don't mean much. Yeah, there was the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and that did have an impact, again, showing largely that perception wins out over substance. ... [But] the last few election cycles, they have not meant very much. You're speaking to your base, you're trying to trash one another, but it doesn't seem to have a lot of traction. This time, it's having traction. I don't know if it's because the candidates are vulnerable or because people are pissed off, but they're listening to these attacks and taking them to heart.
[Plus], most voters still aren't all that interested in the election yet. It's hard to believe, but there are plenty of Republican voters who just haven't had the time or energy to really focus in on the election. This last debate may be the one where they start focusing.
IBTimes: One of the big conclusions coming out of South Carolina was that Romney had lost the electability card - more voters thought Gingrich was the most electable against Obama. Do you think that perception will hold in Florida?
He's electable in South Carolina. I'm not so sure that's the way people in Florida are going to go. We have more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, and we have independents -- the state is split into thirds. You've got to get those independents. That wasn't as big an issue in South Carolina, where people tend to be more polarized between Democrat and Republican.
Newt's [also] been taking a lot of hammering by the opinion-makers and -shapers of the Republican Party. On [Bill] O'Reilly, you had Ann Coulter trashing Newt. I'm sure that Rush [Limbaugh] and the various conservative radio hosts are questioning Newt because they are part of the Republican establishment, and the Republican establishment is afraid of a [candidate] so out of touch that it's a landslide not just for the president but for his whole party. They learned their lesson with Goldwater in 1964. The establishment is terrified of Newt.
It depends how pissed off people are. What the polls aren't doing is showing the emotional state of the voting population. How angry are they about the economy? How much do they blame the rich for it? In South Carolina, by the time the vote happened, we pretty much knew from the polls that Romney was going to lose, just not how bad. I don't think we're going to know in Florida until Tuesday night. Even if it turns out not to be close, I just don't think we're going to know. It's not going to be that obvious.
If you can win in Florida, you've got the chops to win nationally, but then again, it's hard to win in Florida for just that same reason.
Zelden: The polls show a clear two-man race between Romney and Gingrich in Florida. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are far behind. Do you think either of them has a chance of pulling their numbers up?
Santorum, no. Santorum is a dead politician walking at this point. Newt, for whatever reason, has grabbed them [Santorum's voters]. As it becomes more and more clear to people that are likely to vote for Santorum that he is not going to be the candidate, they are more likely to look at the other options.
A vote for Paul over about 10, 11 percent is probably a vote for none of the above. He'll get his hard-core supporters, but it's only about 10 percent. In some states it's 15, in some states it's 10. But if he goes much over 10 percent in Florida, that's a none-of-the-above vote. They're just not happy with the candidates they're being presented with.
The diversity of Florida in terms of not only its size but the diversity within the Republican Party itself. This is a closed primary. This is only Republicans voting, so you're not going to get independent voters in and wanting to have a say and shifting the vote.
Who wins will be a question of who shows up. It's going to be about turnout. We may see a low turnout, and I think that would be a way of saying we're not happy with either candidate. Or we might see a big turnout, if one of their messages took hold. It's two heavyweights slugging it out, and they're just about both bloodied and staggering, and it's not clear which is going to fall down first. I don't think we'll know until after we count the votes, which is of course how it should be.