Florida primary results: Romney most 'electable,' but GOP base still wary

GOP voters saw Mitt Romney as the candidate most likely to defeat President Obama, Florida primary results show. But a disconnect persists between Romney and the party's conservative base.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves during his victory celebration after Florida primary results declared Romney the winner on Tuesday, in Tampa, Fla.

In the end, Florida Republicans want most to defeat President Obama, and they believe Mitt Romney is the man to do it.

In exit polls taken from Tuesday’s primary, which Mr. Romney won by a resounding 14-point margin, 45 percent of voters reported that the ability to beat Mr. Obama is the candidate quality that matters most – well ahead of experience, strong moral character, and being a “true conservative.”

In addition, 53 percent of Florida Republicans said Romney would be the most likely to defeat Obama, far ahead of Newt Gingrich, who got 29 percent. Voters also reported the highest level of satisfaction with a Romney nomination, at 65 percent, compared with how they would feel about a different Republican nominee.

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Romney also won among women voters (with 41 percent), white voters (45 percent), Hispanics (54 percent), and all age and income groups. He tied with former Speaker Gingrich among evangelicals, after losing them 2-to-1 in South Carolina.

Overall, Romney posted a solid win in Tuesday’s primary, beating Gingrich 46 percent to 32 percent. Rick Santorum came in third with 13 percent, and Ron Paul came in fourth with 7 percent. With the best-funded, best-organized campaign in the GOP field, Romney has reasserted his position as the favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination.

But embedded in the data are some warning signs for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Gingrich beat him among the 33 percent of Florida Republicans who call themselves “very conservative.” Among strong supporters of the tea party movement, more than one-third of the vote, Gingrich beat Romney by 12 percentage points.

Forty-one percent said Romney’s issue positions are “not conservative enough.” And 38 percent said they “would like to see someone else” in the Republican race.

“The Republican electorate isn’t in love with any of these guys,” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Though I’m in the group that doesn’t think they’ll have trouble getting Republicans to turn out in November. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s Barack Obama.”

Still, those data point to a disconnect between the front-runner for the GOP nomination and the party’s base. If the most active conservatives in the party, many of them centered in the populist tea party movement, remain dissatisfied, that can’t help but dampen enthusiasm for a ticket headed by Romney. He is likely to feel pressure to put a more tea party-aligned conservative on the ticket with him, analysts say. And even if conservatives are willing to vote for Romney, they may be less willing to volunteer and donate.

For now, signs of a disconnect between Romney and the GOP base give Gingrich plenty of cause to stay in the race – and in his speech Tuesday night, he pledged to do just that. His campaign distributed signs to supporters that said “46 states to go” – a bow to the fact that only four states so far have voted.

In his speech Tuesday night, Gingrich adopted the populist language that has made him a tea party favorite for months.

“I am putting together a people’s campaign,” he said. “Not a Republican campaign, not an establishment campaign, not a Wall Street-funded campaign.”

But with no debates until Feb. 22, and a primary and caucus calendar that favors Romney for the next several weeks, Gingrich will be hard put to shift momentum once again toward his candidacy. 

The Romney disconnect with the GOP base also gives hope to Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, who has vowed to stay in the race. He did, after all, win the first contest – the Iowa caucuses – on the basis of his strong conservative profile and family picture, and if Gingrich implodes, he wants to be there to pick up the slack among conservatives. As long as Santorum's donors keep giving, he can stay in the race.

Congressman Paul of Texas also has no reason to drop out. He is well-funded and has a strong base of libertarian-leaning supporters, including a big youth contingent, ready to help him amass as many delegates as possible to make a showing at the Republican national convention in August.

But as long as the GOP field remains splintered, Romney benefits. And with his strong finish in Florida, winning nearly half the vote, Gingrich can no longer argue that his own vote plus Santorum’s beat Romney. 

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