Ten days after Newt Gingrich dealt Mitt Romney a stinging defeat in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Romney captured some key voter blocs that had backed Gingrich en route to a decisive win in the Florida primary.
Electability emerged as the paramount issue for voters, and voters who listed can defeat Barack Obama as the most important quality in a candidate chose Romney over Gingrich by a margin of 58-33. In South Carolina, exit polls gave Gingrich a 51-37 edge among voters with the same priority.
General election strength seemed to trump ideological purity. As in South Carolina, voters in Florida who most valued a candidate who was a true conservative overwhelmingly went for Gingrich. While self-described very conservative voters chose Gingrich over Romney 41-30, Romney defeated Gingrich among voters who characterized themselves as conservative by a narrow 41-37 margin.
While the South Carolina results seemed to affirm that Gingrich was the chosen candidate of Tea Party-affiliated voters, in Florida Romney outpaced Gingrich among all but the most fervent Tea Party supporters. Just as the most conservative voters chose Gingrich,the former House speaker defeated Romney among Florida voters that strongly support the Tea Party 45-33, whereas those who somewhat support the Tea Party favored Romney by a wide 50-28 margin.
At the same time, when the choices were reduced to support, oppose or neutral in regards to the Tea Party, Romney beat Gingrich in all three categories. That was a dramatic reversal from South Carolina, where Gingrich won voters who support the Tea party 45-17 and those who felt neutral 35-30. As in South Carolina, the Tea Party has a robust presence in Florida and played an influential role in electing Sen. Marc Rubio and Governor Rick Scott.
Romney also won over voters who thought Gingrich was either too conservative or not conservative enough, suggesting that a Romney's perceived moderation may be attractive to voters. Romney won handily among the plurality of voters who said the former Massachusetts governor's positions were just right, although the 41 percent of voters who said Romney was not conservative enough favored Gingrich.