Tuesday, January 31, 2012
What did we learn in Florida? Ugly politics work... And they don't.
With the results in and the pundits having a field day making wild claims on TV about what Florida means for the rest of the primary season, it's time to get down to brass tacks. The real question isn't what Florida means for the rest of the primary season, but what did we learn from it? Did Romney finally show he can unite the Republican party and beat President Obama? Is the style we saw in Florida from Gingrich and Romney going to continue? I offer my thoughts:
What did we learn?
We learned that Romney intends to win this process by any means necessary. He didn't just take off the gloves, he put on boxing gloves and wrapped them in barbed wire. He and his Super PACs spent an absolute fortune, pundits are saying he outspent Gingrich by $15 million in Florida (that means he spent a minimum of 4x more in Florida than Newt), and they spent almost 100% of it on purely negative ads trashing Gingrich. The attack ads (some of which were immediately disproved by Politifact and other sources, but people don't normally look into things that well) aren't a new tactic, we saw how well Romney's negative tactics worked in Iowa when he demolished Gingrich there. What was a new development was how personal he got on the campaign trail. We didn't see the Romney that promotes his business and leadership experience in Florida, we saw a new Romney that focused his energy on lashing out against Gingrich and pointing out his past in Congress and as a consultant and using that as a platform to make attacks against him. I wondered if Romney would go for the throat after being put on notice in South Carolina, but I underestimated how far he was willing to go with it. We also saw a different side of Gingrich than we've seen to date. The skilled orator who highlights his past as a political strategist and conservative while promoting his "grandiose" ideas was missing in Florida. We saw a Gingrich that appeared uncomfortable while under constant attack and failed to defend himself in an effective way against the attacks, whether they were true or false. He appeared frustrated, defensive, and angry and lost his focus on the issues and passion for his ideas we've seen so far. The other candidates, Santorum and Paul, barely register as having done anything in Florida. And before you start yelling at me, yes, I know both of them appeared at some events across the state and participated in the debates. Paul wisely skipped Florida to avoid wasting money and Santorum did what he could with the shoestring budget his campaign has been reduced to. We already knew Ron Paul was in this for the long haul, but it now appears Santorum is going to stay in the race as long as he can despite being flat in the polls too. I still don't think this can continue all the way to the convention despite his claim that it will- Santorum simply doesn't have the money or the loyal base of Paul to make it that far. He will have to win another state if he wants to build any momentum back up, and although that's possible, I don't think it's too probable.
Did Romney show us he can unite the Republican Party and beat President Obama?
In a word- No. Romney had his strongest performance to date which is certainly important, but he still has a long ways to go to prove he can unite the Republican base and still appeal to any independents in a general election. Florida was a mixed bag for him. Yes, he won the primary and the delegates, but at a great cost. Not only did his campaign spend more than quadruple the amount of money campaigning in Florida than Gingrich (Santorum and Paul won't register on the spending scale compared to either in Florida), he also lost a lot of his appeal to independents and potential Democratic defectors with the way he spent the money. Polls now show Romney's likability numbers have been dropping since his scorched earth attack ad strategy started, and most surprisingly polls now show that Floridians would rather vote for Obama than Romney. This puts a whole new kink in the whole process. It has been assumed up until now that Romney was the most electable candidate and polls to date had shown him as the most likely to beat Obama, but that image of inevitability could be shattered if the way he wins the Republican nomination makes him so unlikable he can't beat Obama. Romney is going to have to find a new way to beat Gingrich if he wants to be the nominee, because his constant negative attacks are taking a toll on his electability and overall appeal. Jabs here and there are fine and are pretty effective, but his current plan is a two edged sword and it will end up cutting him as badly as it cuts his opponents if he isn't careful.
Is the style we saw in Florida from Gingrich and Romney going to continue?
No, I don't think so. Gingrich's concession speech (well, there wasn't really any concession going on in it but I'm not sure what else you'd call it) after the results were almost all in was probably a signal of how his campaign will be run from here on out. He knows he didn't handle the attacks well in Florida and that his own counter attacks failed to do any real damage to Romney and he needs to adjust his strategy if he's going to be the nominee come August. I think Gingrich will stick to what he does best: promote big ideas, rail against Obama and the media when it's beneficial to him, and lay out his vision for "rebuilding" America. He'll have to get some jabs in against Romney here and there, but he needs to appear to rise above the attacks to beat them and I think he now knows that. Romney's campaign machine is too big and well funded not to know that although they won the delegates in Florida, their current direction could cost them the election in November even if it succeeds in getting them the nomination. I think you'll see Romney focus more on railing against Obama and trying to paint himself as someone the "common man" can connect with, because right now he's still not making them believe he is the one that can make the economy work for them again. I think too many of his Gingrich attacks have been called out in Florida and Newt will theoretically be wiser from the mess of Florida and be better prepared for future grilling by the Romney ad machine, so there's no logic in continuing in the vein of relentless negativity. The Super PACs for both will probably keep the anger dialed up for the rest of the process though, and the candidates will of course claim there's nothing they can do about that.
So, like I said after South Carolina: Things are getting fun, and it will be interesting to see where things head. Luckily for my study habits February is a pretty slow month for the campaigning, but let me know what you think and I'll do my best to respond.