Gingrich picks up steam in Florida

Coming off a big victory in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich is riding the momentum into Florida. A week ago, polls out of the Sunshine State indicated that Mitt Romney was the runaway favorite, leading by as much as 26 points in mid-month. That has dramatically changed as the “inevitability” of Romney winning the nomination has come into doubt.

The latest two polls out of Florida show Gingrich up, but to give you an idea of the swings in this race, below are the numbers out of the state from Rasmussen, including the poll released yesterday. See if you can follow along as we view the fickle nature of the conservative movement.

Poll Romney Gingrich Santorum Paul Perry
1/22 32% 41% 11% 8%
1/11 41% 19% 15% 9% 2%
11/8 24% 19% 1% 3% 4%

Rasmussen didn’t poll during the big jump in Gingrich’s number in December, but CNN, SurveyUSA, and NBC News polls all showed him eclipsing 40%. But you can see it in the Rasmussen numbers, Gingrich has seen a 22 point swing in 11 days. And Romney has seen his 22 point advantage turn into a 9 point deficit.

Of course, Romney isn’t going down quietly. His campaign launched a brutal ad in Florida yesterday slamming Gingrich for, well, just about everything. The ad notes that Gingrich “cashed in” by working as a lobbyist consultant for Freddie Mac, which many believe helped inflate the the housing bubble that led to the financial crisis. Gingrich’s ethics issues are also brought up. In the end, Romney’s campaign says, “If Newt wins, [Barack Obama] would be very happy”:

If you’re thinking that Romney is out of it in Florida, don’t forget that early voting was underway before Gingrich started to move back up in the polls. Liz Mair notes in a lengthy post at her blog:

Floridians who vote via absentee ballot already have been in a position to have their say for some time now, and per the Florida GOP, by Saturday night, about 185,000 primary votes had been cast via absentee ballot, with another 12,000 having been cast in early voting in the five counties not subject to shortened early voting periods. That all preceded Gingrich’s big Palmetto State win on Saturday, and the perception of “Newt-mentum” that now exists.
Romney, too, is comparatively well-equipped to chase down Romney absentee voters. Not only did the campaign aggressively target absentee voters in the first place, sending mailers to vast quantities of them, but Romney is generally regarded as having the strongest organization in Florida. That matters, when it comes to making sure those voting absentee and early who have indicated a preference for your candidate do in fact vote for him—and in the case of absentee ballots, making sure they put them in the mail, too. Gingrich does not appear to have had anything directly approximating Romney’s absentee operation in place, though he is surely working on matching it now.

This, plus recent polling in Florida that gives Romney such an overwhelming lead, probably explains why Priorities USA’s Bill Burton asserted on Saturday night that a Newt Florida win was “mathematically impossible.” Burton could well be proven right.

We’ll know next Tuesday whether or not Romney can slow down Gingrich’s momentum before Super Tuesday (March 6th). But don’t count him out right now, as we’ve seen things can change in this race very quickly.

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