01/27/2012 07:26 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Post-Florida, Expect a Nasty Dogfight for the GOP Nomination

Look at the latest GOP polls coming out of Florida. It appears that Mitt Romney is slowly pulling away from Newt Gingrich, opening up a 9-point lead in the most recent poll, with just four days left before next Tuesday's critical, winner-take-all primary.

You might think that means that Romney is also leading Gingrich nationally. You'd be wrong. Gingrich, while slipping in Florida, is actually pulling ahead of Romney. The two latest national polls have Gingrich leading by 8-9 points, a slight increase over the smaller Gingrich lead from last week.

Since state and national polling has been conducted concurrently, the difference in the results can't be attributed to a time lag. What we're seeing, instead, are sharply divergent trends at the two levels.

Why? The explanation is fairly simple. Florida, far from being a bellwether state, has unique voter demographics. And by adapting his strategy to account for these demographics, Romney has managed to gain support in Florida that he's failed to win nationally.

Which voter demographics are proving most decisive in Florida? They include:

Women. In South Carolina, where Gingrich won a commanding 12-point victory, he surprised many observers by carrying both the male and female vote. But in Florida, Romney leads Gingrich by as much as 16 points among women, according to the latest Rasmussen poll.

Latinos. Not a significant factor in South Carolina, an estimated 11-12 percent of the GOP electorate in Florida is comprised of Latinos, mostly Cuban-Americans. Romney holds a 4-3 lead over Gingrich, according to the latest Insider Advantage poll. In other GOP primary states, the Latino share of the electorate will be smaller, and with greater concerns over U.S. immigration policy, could be far more favorable to Gingrich.

Absentee/Early Voters. Florida permits early voting, and some 10 percent of the electorate has already cast their vote. Voting began before the South Carolina primary, when Romney had a 30-point lead over Gingrich in Florida. Absentee balloting -- some if it from military voters -- also favors Romney.

Interestingly, the Romney-Gingrich gender gap isn't among the women many observers might expect: evangelicals. Gingrich still has a strong lead over Romney with this critical voting bloc. However, Gingrich's problem is that its share of the Florida vote is much smaller than it was in South Carolina -- and in many other GOP contests.

Gingrich, it seems, is losing relatively moderate GOP women, not conservative ones. That could be an important factor in the general election, where independent female voters may not take to Gingrich, either. But post-Florida, how badly Romney might hurt Gingrich with women in states with large numbers of evangelical voters is still unclear.

The big question coming out of Florida will be perception. If Gingrich loses, he will face renewed calls from the GOP establishment to withdraw from the race. And Romney, with his huge war chest, will continue to outspend Gingrich in future primaries. That could also give Romney a chance to slowly chip away at Gingrich's widening national lead.

But that lead is suggestive of just how much discontent with Romney remains among GOP voters, especially as the former Massachusetts governor continues to pivot to the center. In the South Gingrich has a huge polling lead over Romney, and that's not likely to change, no matter what
Romney does.

Another sign of GOP disaffection with Romney is the continuing rise of Rick Santorum. His percentage of the GOP vote nationally recently jumped to a record 18 percent, just 10 points behind Romney, in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

Santorum and Gingrich are going after the same evangelical voters, leaving Romney with virtually no support among this critical voting bloc. Were the cash-poor Santorum to drop out at some point, the bulk of his support would likely switch to Gingrich, giving the former House speaker a huge new source of backing nationally -- and in other primary states where evangelicals dominate the GOP electorate.

In short, Romney better enjoy what appears to be a likely victory in Florida while he can. Because it may end up bouncing about as far as Gingrich's South Carolina win did -- not very far.