“I’m beginning to feel we might win,” said Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner during a Florida campaign stop on Monday. He is not one to boast; but it was hardly an outrageous statement. Most commentators agreed. Nate Silver, the New York Times’ statistics guru gave him a 98% chance of winning the state and suggested it would be by roughly 10-points ahead of Newt Gingrich, his main rival. Romney’s confidence carried over to Election Day: whilst Floridians headed to the polls (those that did not vote early), he even broke into song, offering a raspy rendition of American the Beautiful that, admittedly, hardly held a candle to Obama’s recent tribute to Al Green.
After Gingrich’s victory in the South Carolina primary, we at Politics in Spires remained sceptical that he could overcome Romney’s healthy lead in Florida. And sensible we were. Romney beat Silver’s expectations and won by roughly 15 points, claiming all 50 delegates in a winner-take-all state.
After poor debate performances and a deluge of pro-Romney advertising, the writing was on the wall for Gingrich. Expecting defeat ahead of the final votes, he blamed disunity among the ‘conservative base’, a general reference to the vote split between the evangelical favourite Rick Santorum and Newt himself, who despite his many years as a Washington power broker had success in South Carolina due in part to his labelling Mr Romney as the ‘establishment candidate’. On Tuesday morning’s edition of ‘Fox and Friends’ Mr Gingrich said that “If you watch tonight, my prediction is the conservative vote will be dramatically bigger than Governor Romney’s…So we’ve got to find a way to consolidate conservatives, and I’m clearly the front-runner among conservatives.”
But this is exactly Gingrich’s problem. Unlike the others, it seems Romney can win more than the ultra-conservative vote. A key vote was Hispanics, who make up almost of quarter of Florida’s population, though comparatively few are registered Republicans. Nevertheless, according to exit polling they account for 1 in 7 GOP primary voters – hardly insignificant.
It’s a tricky group for the Republicans, though: socially conservative in many respects, Latinos, the fastest growing population group in America, remain sceptical about the party’s positions on immigration – a big problem. Still, Romney got their vote and it is a major embarrassment to Gingrich, who, one would think, should have done better given the differences between him and Romney on immigration. In a November debate Newt took a lot of heat for resisting GOP sentiment to send illegal immigrants back home. Romney, meanwhile, is seemingly much more hard-line, suggesting he would veto congressional action on the Dream Act, legislation that would allow some illegal immigrants to become citizens, and later on went after then-candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry for allowing illegal immigrants to attend state colleges.
But this did not seem to matter in Florida. Looking at exit polls, Monica McDermott over at the New York Times seemed befuddled:
More than one-third of Republican primary voters feel that illegal immigrants should be offered a chance to apply for citizenship, a position more in line with Mr. Gingrich’s than Mr. Romney’s. Three in ten voters would like to see illegal immigrants deported back to their home countries, and a similar number believe they should be allowed to stay as guest workers.
How did Romney do it? I see three answers. First, Newt overshot. An aggressive advert (in Spanish) called Romney ‘anti-immigrant’, prompting Marco Rubio, a freshman Florida senator and tea-party darling to cry foul. The advert soon disappeared, but the headlines didn’t. Then, a bit of Romney flip-flopping seemed to work: he hinted at the possibility of a temporary work permit for illegal immigrants. But Romney’s biggest hat tip should go to Florida’s Cuban Americans, vociferously anti-Castro and a very politically active community that accounts for roughly half of the Hispanic vote. For them, it is about Cuba before it is about immigration policy. As the Washington Post points out, many Cuban exiles voted early by absentee ballot, and thanks to some prodding from Romney supporters, they had been sending them in long before Gingrich surged in South Carolina.
Too bad for the Republicans that Cuban Americans don’t make up the bulk of US Hispanics. Indeed, Romney’s victory means little about how Hispanics view him vis-à-vis Obama, who in 2008 crushed John McCain among Hispanics by 67 to 31 percent. This November looks pretty grim for them too. The Christian Science Monitor looked at polls showing that, at the moment, Obama beats Romney among Florida Latinos – 50 to 40 percent – and does even better against Gingrich – 52 to 38 percent. That doesn’t seem too bad until you see the national polls, where Obama leads Romney among Latinos 67 to 25 percent and Gingrich 70 to 22.
Unfortunately for Republicans, Romney’s Florida performance does little to address this problem – and if they are serious about winning in November, it should prod them to have a rethink about their stance on immigration and how to address America’s sizable undocumented immigrant population.
A Blake Ewing is DPhil Candidate at Oxford University and the Graduate Editor for Politics in Spires.