SALT LAKE CITY, January 30, 2012—Volatility is the name of the game.
And that’s not even referring to the Republican primary candidates’ personalities and performances.
A Quinnipiac University poll released the day before the Florida primary showed Romney up on Gingrich and climbing. With the former Massachusetts governor ahead by 14, the race has seen a 23-point swing from ten days ago, when the former Speaker led by nine.
Unless there is a mind-blowing, whiplash-inducing turnaround, Mitt Romney will win tomorrow night. But there are some key questions that should cause Republicans across the land to pay attention.
Will Romney win on the electability question? And how will he perform with the core constituencies that propelled Gingrich to an impressive win in South Carolina? The answers will go a long way to helping calm the unease about Romney among many Republicans.
What will Gingrich’s tone be in defeat? Will he double down on indignation, or will he go back to the more grandfatherly demeanor that is more appealing to moderates?
Will Santorum get enough support to justify continuing? So far, all the indications from his campaign are that he’s in for the long haul. Money and logic might dictate that he withdraw if he only musters 10% of the vote, but neither money nor logic has fared very well so far this primary season.
Indeed, the former senator might be the most intriguing figure right now. Few people see a path to the nomination available to him, but he insists that he has the commitment and frugality to keep going. Meanwhile, he has seemed strategic in his criticisms of both frontrunners, which begs the question, what is he aiming at? If he does drop out, whom will he endorse? How he reacts to the Florida results will be his tell.
While it looks as though Florida proper will not embrace Gingrich, will he still be able to “wall off the south,” arguing that the Sunshine State is more of a moderate swing state than its southern neighbors? And will Republicans outside the south react favorably to such a strategy?
Texas Congressman Ron Paul has not campaigned heavily in Florida. He knows that he can’t win it and has opted to campaign in Maine, where caucuses have already begun and where he’s picked up some coveted endorsements. His loyal Florida supporters will show up, but can he beat Santorum? They are tied in the new Quinnipiac poll, with Santorum holding on to a slight edge in the averages. Because Florida is winner-take-all, just beating Santorum would be meaningless, so will some Paul supporters defect to another candidate in order to tangle the results? Will his Maine strategy give him more delegates for the week than Santorum and Gingrich combined, and a big bump in enthusiasm?
This is the end of the first stage of the season. Sports analysts describe it as the time when the picture begins to come into focus. We can begin to see who can really contend, and whether heavyweights merit the label. The results in Florida will profoundly influence polls across the country.
GOP voters are concerned, first and foremost, with defeating President Obama. They are hungry for someone who can take the fight to the president. The South Carolina campaign convinced them that Newt was that someone. Ten days in Florida have caused a huge segment of the party to reconsider that assessment.
Will the race continue to be volatile, or does this primary have one last surprise left in it—a consolidation of support around the frontrunner?
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