01/23/2012 11:31 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

A National Race Playing Out State by State

I have often written of the many myths and fictions that get adopted in politics and the discussion of campaigns. Another one has recently developed, and it has to do with the impact of television ads and specific state campaign activities.

Here's the myth: Newt Gingrich took a huge fall in Iowa because of all the television ads run against him by the other campaigns and super PACs, and he came back in South Carolina because of the ads run on his behalf against Mitt Romney.

The truth is that although campaign activities have some importance and minor effects, this is a national race that plays out state by state. And while there are individual differences in the demographics and voter preferences in each state, and while the styles of the candidates and campaigns have differing effect in each state, the movement in this race is really much more tied to a national narrative and conversation.

In nearly all polling at the beginning of December, Gingrich had developed about a 12-point national lead. By the time of the Iowa caucuses in January, this large national lead had turned into a 10-point gap between Gingrich and Romney -- thus a 22-point national swing.
In the Iowa polling at the same time in December, when Gingrich was riding a national wave, he was ahead of Romney by 10 points. On caucus night, Gingrich finished behind Romney and Rick Santorum by 11 points. So Iowa featured a rough 21-point swing -- matching the national movement almost identically.

As the campaign moved from New Hampshire, where Romney received a big bump of momentum from his victory (the much more important effect of state caucuses or primaries is their impact on national coverage and momentum), he held a 24-point national lead in Gallup daily tracking. By the time of the South Carolina primary, this lead had shrunk to a mere 5-point national lead for Romney -- a 19-point shift in the country.

In looking at South Carolina in the same time frame, Romney was ahead there by about 10 points after the New Hampshire primary. He ended up losing the first Southern state primary by 12 points to Gingrich -- a 22-point shift in South Carolina, and very close to the national change.

As you can see from the above data, this race, especially between the two well-known national players, Romney and Gingrich, is much more about the conversations and discussions and sentiments going on across the country than it is about the level of ad spending and resource allocation in any given state.

There is, of course, some campaign effect (Santorum's success in Iowa had much to do with his constant campaigning there and not television ads), but the important dynamic in this race is who best creates and augments a national narrative and then effectively manages it in the state-by-state nomination contests.

What does that tell us about Florida and the days ahead? First, in the polling you will see very soon, Romney's Florida lead will have evaporated completely because of the national movement under way. Second, for Romney to come back and win Florida, he should not rely on television ads in that state to do his work. He needs to change the national narrative and conversation in his favor.

The best way to do this, as we have seen so far, is through this week's debates. If Romney doesn't perform better in the debates and change the national momentum that is in Gingrich's favor at this point, then the endorsements, television ads, and organization that he has in Florida won't matter. Romney needs to move the nation before he can move Florida.

Cross-posted from National Journal.