What to expect from the Florida primary

A win for Mitt Romney looks inevitable -- but this does not mean the end of Newt Gingrich.

Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina looked as if it could reset the Republican primary race. But the day of the Florida primary has arrived, and Gingrich does not appear to have retained that momentum.

It's essentially a two-horse race between Mitt Romney and Gingrich, as the two other candidates, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul, have chosen not to campaign in Florida -- a notoriously expensive state. They are planning to conserve resources for other caucuses where they are more likely to win delegates.

While the polls have shown a broad range of results in the Sunshine State ahead of today's poll, Mitt Romney emerges at the clear favourite. A Quinnipiac University poll out yesterday gave him 43 per cent to Gingrich's 29, while a separate poll from Marist University and NBC News gave them 42 and 27 respectively. A Suffolk poll at the weekend gave Romney a 20 point lead.

This is hardly surprising, given Romney's far superior organisation, funding, and staffing. His team has spent more than $14m on television advertising in Florida, primarily attacking Gingrich. By contrast, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives spent around $3m.

Romney's tone over the past few days has reflected this. He has been increasingly confident, telling a crowd of supporters: "I'm beginning to think we might win tomorrow."

Gingrich, on the other hand, told a rally that "we are pitting people power versus money power", as his chances of winning the nomination and becoming the frontunner dwindle. However, he sounded a defiant note in a television interview, when he said that "in the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate ... a liberal Republican."

The crucial factor is the size of Romney's victory. While a double figure win could be difficult for Gingrich to come back from, if it is five points or less, and some late polls (including Insider Advantage) suggest it could be, then that could be spun as a big positive for the former Speaker, given his opponent's superior resources. The demographic of the vote split will also be relevant. As Rebecca Lloyd explained on the Star Spangled Staggers last week, Florida is an exceptionally diverse state. If Gingrich wins among poorer voters and Tea Party supporters, he can still sell himself as the candidate of the right-wing, depicting Romney as a moderate appealing to elites and centrists.

Florida, which defied party rules to move up its primary in the nomination schedule and lost half its 99 delegates as punishment, is not going to be a "decider" state. While a victory for Romney here looks overwhelmingly likely, as Nate Silver explains on the Five Thirty Eight blog, he is still vulnerable in several of the states voting in February. A Romney win will set the candidate back on course and cement his frontrunner status, but it does not mean that the battle with Gingrich is necessarily over.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.