Is Mitt Romney's Florida support collapsing?

Mitt Romney has struggled through a tough 10 days, while Newt Gingrich has had great debate performances and a win in South Carolina. Now, new polls show Mr. Gingrich leading in Florida.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during a roundtable discussion about housing issues in Tampa, Fla., on Monday.

Is Mitt Romney suffering a reversal of fortune in the Florida polls? It sure looks that way at the moment. There’s a passel of new poll info out and most of it doesn’t look good for the former Massachusetts governor.

In fact, if the most recent numbers are correct, Mr. Romney has fallen behind the surging Newt Gingrich in the Sunshine State.

Let’s start with Insider Advantage – its just-released survey has Romney eight percentage points behind Mr. Gingrich, 26 to 34 percent. A breakdown by age, race, and gender shows that Mitt trails the former House speaker across the board.

Rasmussen Reports has Romney nine points behind, with 32 percent to Gingrich’s 41. Two weeks ago, Romney had a 22-point lead in Florida, according to Rasmussen. That disappeared quicker than a hundred dollars at Disney World, didn’t it?

Forty-two percent of Florida GOP voters now say Gingrich would be their party’s strongest general election candidate, according to Rasmussen data. Thirty-nine percent say Romney would be the strongest.

“Throughout the GOP race, Romney has always benefited from the perception that he was the strongest general election candidate in the field. However, among Florida voters at the moment, that is no longer the case,” says a Rasmussen analysis of its new figures.

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Public Policy Polling has yet to release its latest figures. But PPP is already hinting that it is seeing a big pro-Gingrich swing. The firm tweeted last night that after a night of polling that it's finding Romney and Gingrich “neck and neck.” A PPP poll released back on Jan. 16 had shown Romney with a 15-point lead.

Wow. So is Romney’s support collapsing? Well, we’d say it’s deflating a little bit, while Gingrich voters are exploding in number. Take the Rasmussen poll: Over two weeks, it shows the Romney vote declining by nine percentage points, while the Gingrich vote gained a whopping 22 percentage points. That’s a big swing.

The Romney camp does have at least one bit of good news to cling to. Florida has early voting, and a substantial portion of the GOP electorate has already mailed in ballots. Among these voters, Romney leads by 11 percentage points, according to Rasmussen.

Given the volatility of the race so far, it’s also possible that what goes up can ... well, do we have to finish that? It’s a truism of politics that support quickly gained can be lost just as quickly.

Gingrich has benefited from a run of great debate performances and media reports talking about his great debate performances. Romney, meanwhile, has struggled through a very tough 10 days, with scrutiny of his tenure at Bain Capital, his hesitance about releasing his tax forms, and other negatives dominating his news coverage.

“I would expect that Gingrich won’t be able to ride high for too long. News coverage tends to be cyclical, and it won’t be long before Gingrich comes in for renewed criticism from somewhere,” writes George Washington University political scientist John Sides on the Monkey Cage political blog Jan. 23.

Well, maybe. But how much worse could criticism of Gingrich become, given that his ex-wife has already gone on national television to talk about their ugly divorce?

I see – it could get worse. Just look at this tough ad out Monday from the Romney camp.

One thing is certain: Romney really, really, really wants Rick Santorum to keep up the fight. Santorum gets about 13 percent of Florida GOP voters in recent polls, and much of that 13 percent is composed of just the sort of voters who are most suspicious of Romney: conservative evangelicals.

“Just as Gingrich is eyeing Santorum’s anti-Romney voters in Florida, Romney hopes Santorum will survive through the voting there – and won’t become the next Rick Perry, dropping out before Election Day,” writes University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato on his Crystal Ball blog.

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