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What to expect from the Florida primary

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

By Samira Shackle

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.

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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.