Romney's victory in Florida is being hailed as a dramatic comeback, a decisive victory, a clear statement of who owns the Republican race. The truth is, this may not be Romney's race to lose, but there are perfectly plausible scenarios in which he loses it. And not losing is not quite the same thing as winning. Not yet. Not until Romney gets through Missouri, Arizona and Ohio.
A close look at the Florida results reveals some disturbing news for the Romney camp. In South Carolina Gingrich won by dominating the evangelical, Tea Party, and "very conservative" voters (self-described, in all cases.) Florida, as everyone agrees, is not like South Carolina; it is a huge state with multiple media markets, distinct geographically defined identities, and a wide range of voters and attitudes. But Gingrich once again won the same categories of voters, and more importantly he won the counties in which they reside; in fact, he won a majority of the counties in the state.
That matters, because there are a lot of states in which the Republican primary- and caucus-going electorate looks more like the kind of Republicans who live in the Gingrich counties than the kind who live in the Romney counties. And not just in the deep South; the strong evangelical and Tea Party presence in Missouri and Ohio probably has a lot to do with the fact that the most recent polling shows Gingrich, Santorum and Romney sharing roughly equal shares of the GOP vote in those extremely important states. If the supporters of Gingrich and Santorum were to unify behind a single candidate -- who, according to these polls, could be either of them -- that candidate would be leading Romney by 20+ points. Santorum does not seem like a plausible successor to Romney as front-runner but he is pulling considerable support and has high national favorability ratings. That makes him something less than a contender, at least for now, but something more than a spoiler. And Ron Paul has been quietly collecting support in the caucus states.
It's important to remember that winning the most states, or even the biggest states, actually means very little (not to mention the fact that Puerto Rico's 23 delegates are more than were awarded in New Hampshire.) The Republican Party adopted some new rules for this election, one of which makes all these primaries proportional. Florida was run as a winner-take-all, but that is going to be challenged at the Rules Committee of the RNC. If the RNC -- which has already punished Florida for its temerity in holding an early primary by taking away half its delegates -- decides that the Florida delegates should be distributed proportionally, then Romney's huge victory means he gets 20 delegates and Gingrich gets 15, by my calculations. That's not a huge victory, that's barely an edge. To win requires 1144 delegates, which is awfully hard to do in a proportional system. Super Tuesday could end up changing exactly nothing, with no candidate nearly on the way to 1144 delegates. Try this: if Romney wins every state on Super Tuesday except Georgia by the same margin that he won by in Florida, he gets a grand total of 185 delegates. (This is a far cry from earlier elections; there are 10 states voting on Super Tuesday this year, there were 24 in 2008 and most of those were winner-take-all.) In fact, given this arithmetic, it is difficult to see how any candidate could possibly wrap things up on March 6. At that point all eyes turn to Missouri on March 17 and Texas on April 3. Missouri and Texas are not the places where Romney wants to be making his stand.
So three states to watch in the next month. Missouri has a non-binding poll on February 7 in which Gingrich is not participating, but his name will be included for the caucuses on March 17, and in the meantime watch those February 7 results to get a sense of whether Romney is getting any real traction. Then comes Arizona on February 28. Arizona has a very strong Tea Party presence and a hugely important Latino vote, and Romney is vulnerable on immigration. And then comes Super Tuesday on March 6. On Super Tuesday there are a lot of states that are not very interesting (Massachusetts will go for Romney, Georgia will go for Gingrich). Gingrich is not on the ballot in Virginia, but Santorum's performance there should be extremely informative. And watch Ohio. There is a reason that Ohio and Florida have been the key states in every national election of the past twenty years, and that's not going to change any time soon. If the poll numbers hold up and Romney only takes one third or so of the GOP vote in Ohio after losing Arizona and failing to dominate in Missouri without Gingrich on the ballot, watch out.
All of this assumes that Gingrich can keep going, and can keep competing in all these races. Can he? To compete effectively, a campaign needs four things: a base of voter support on which to build, money, organization and support from the Party leadership. He has the base of support. He has been relying on one casino-owning patron for money, but his fundraising may pick up. There are big problems with organization; Romney's superior organization on the ground in Florida had a lot to do with the way he won, and Gingrich has not shown the kind of disciplined leadership that suggests he can build an effective organization quickly. Still, he is getting help from professionals, and with the Internet and sufficiently enthusiastic volunteers a great deal is possible. As for support from the party leadership ... no. The GOP leadership hates and fears Gingrich -- they hate him for past slights and disasters, and they fear he will lead the party over a cliff. In 1964 Goldwater ran on a motto "in your heart you know he's right." To which the response was, "in your guts you know he's nuts." To a lot of Republicans, Gingrich looks like a gruesome reminder of Goldwater, an insurgent who also ran against a wealthy East Coast establishment candidate.
I don't think it's only the leadership, either. I don't have any polling data to support this, but I think that when Republican voters look at Romney, even those who do not support him can imagine him as a plausible president. By contrast, I don't think even Gingrich's supporters look at him and think that. Even the ones who think he can defeat Obama in an election don't necessarily think he can govern; that stuff about 40 executive orders the first day is not what gets his supporters to come out for him, it's the idea that he will go out there and tear Obama's head off in the debates. Which is exactly why the one thing Gingrich absolutely cannot afford is a weak debate performance. Romney's supporters respect him, Santorum's voters like him, and Gingrich's supporters root for him as an exercise in projection.
At the moment it is difficult to see Gingrich sweeping up the support of Santorum's and Paul's supporters and becoming the consensus anti-Romney. It is equally difficult to see Santorum doing the converse. But at this point, it is only slightly less difficult to see Romney repeating the Florida outcome enough times to put this thing away.
Three states to watch. Missouri and Arizona in February, Ohio on March 6th. If Romney can't win those it's going to be a long campaign.