GWEN IFILL: We turn back to the subject of presidential politics now, with a closer look at the brutal battle for the Republican nomination in Florida and beyond.
For that, we are joined by Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
The electorate has changed so much in this four weeks which we have had — it feels a lot longer than that — from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina, now to Florida. How is it different?
You were in Florida last week, Susan.
SUSAN PAGE, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: Well, for one thing, Hispanic voters really matter. That hasn’t been the case in these Republican contests. But a lot of Cuban Americans and other Hispanics vote in the Florida primary.
Cuban-Americans have been a source of support for Newt Gingrich. In a landscape that’s been tough for him, they have been one thing that has mattered. Also, the number of elderly voters, seniors 65 and older, obviously a big part of the Florida electorate.
And this is a group that is really breaking for Mitt Romney. Half of seniors 65 and older in some of these statewide polls we have seen say they’re supporting Mitt Romney, younger voters more likely to be Newt Gingrich supporters.
GWEN IFILL: Newt Gingrich, by all accounts, isn’t going to do well tomorrow night. We are going to wait and see what the voters say, but there are no polls that show him winning. Still, he says he’s in this until the convention. What’s his path, Stu?
STUART ROTHENBERG, Editor and Publisher, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, right now, his path is very conservative voters in these contests that are coming up.
Those are the people that are still sticking with him, the people who think that Mitt Romney is a squishy moderate, not conservative enough. Although Romney is doing better among conservative voters, the most conservative voters are sticking with Newt Gingrich. The problem is . . .
GWEN IFILL: Like that guy in Judy’s piece who said, well, he’s a tad less conservative than I want him to be, but maybe he will be okay.
STUART ROTHENBERG: That’s right.
The problem for Gingrich is that he needs to broaden his appeal. And he’s on the defensive and he will be on the defensive for an extended period here. So it’s difficult to see. Having said that, Gwen, we have seen so many twists and turns, that I think it’s unwise to predict anything.
GWEN IFILL: Covering your bets, are you, Stu?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Absolutely.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, you had an interesting survey in today’s USA Today, the swing state survey, in which you isolated, what . . .
SUSAN PAGE: Twelve states.
GWEN IFILL: Twelve states, a dozen states, and said, this is how it would match up against the person we now know will be the general election nominee, depending on whether it’s Gingrich or Romney.
How did that look?
SUSAN PAGE: It was so interesting. We are doing this about once a month in these 12 battleground states.
And we found the bottom dropping out for Newt Gingrich. He lost to Barack Obama in these 12 states by 14 percentage points. In our — the survey the previous month, he beat Barack Obama by 3 percentage points. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was just about tied with Barack Obama. This is the most powerful argument you can make with Republican voters in this contest, which is that, I will defeat Barack Obama and the other guy won’t.
I think it’s the effect of two things. It’s the effect of trying to appeal to a very conservative, the very conservative voters Stu was talking about, and getting you out of sync with independent mainstream voters. And the other thing is this barrage of negative ads that have been run against Newt Gingrich in Iowa, in South Carolina, and now especially in Florida.
Boy, they have really managed to sully his reputation and raise questions about his character and leadership.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, I think there are two interesting things here in particular.
For a while, Newt Gingrich was saying he was the most electable because he could be on the stage and debate Barack Obama better than anybody else. And apparently in South Carolina, that argument resonated. What we are now seeing, in addition to the Gallup poll, is we’re seeing lots of surveys that show in general election matchups, the contests are not close when it’s Obama against Santorum or Gingrich.
But with Romney in the race against the president, the contest is close. Sometimes, Romney’s a point or two ahead. So it’s harder, increasingly difficult, I think, for — both for Santorum, but particularly Gingrich, to make the argument about electability.
GWEN IFILL: Except, what puzzles me is, right after South Carolina, you guys were saying that electability had gone away as an issue, at least in some of these exit polls that we saw coming out of South Carolina.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Can I take — go ahead. You want to — go ahead.
SUSAN PAGE: I was going to say, the exit polls in South Carolina showed that Gingrich suddenly was seen as the more electable one.
But that was a speed bump for Romney. That is not the case now, I think, in the polling that we have seen. In the South Carolina exit polls, though, Gingrich had managed to diffuse that issue.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Two points. One is, remember, South Carolina has more very conservative voters. So they were inclined to support Gingrich.
And the reality is, people tend to think that the person they like is the most electable, until there is sufficient data to convince them of that. And now we’re getting that data. So I think that was the difference. South Carolina was a different electorate. Those were conservatives who wanted to believe Newt Gingrich was the most electable.
GWEN IFILL: Let me make a parallel. In 1992, Pat Buchanan came out of nowhere. And he challenged and bloodied the eventual nominee, George H.W. Bush.
Is this similar? Could this happen? Could Newt Gingrich gather enough proportional delegates, a few here and a few there along the way, to stay in it into the convention and hurt Mitt Romney’s chances in the fall?
SUSAN PAGE: Oh, absolutely. I think he’ll stay in the race for some time. I think he will gather delegates. I think he will have a speaking role at that convention.
And it is likely to be — at the moment, at least, he looks pretty unrelenting toward Mitt Romney. And we know that the cases where nominees face a challenge — even though they don’t get the nomination, a challenge at their convention, as George H.W. Bush did, as Gerald Ford did in 1976 or Jimmy Carter in 1980, these are cases that really hurt the nominee going into the general election. Those three examples we just gave, all places where that candidate lost.
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I’d agree. But I think there’s an interesting opportunity here.
Will Newt Gingrich wake up one morning, look in the mirror, Newt Gingrich the historian, and decide that history will hold him responsible — or give him credit, depending upon your perspective — for Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney? If he does, and if it comes to that point, he made suddenly decide that he may defer. But I know it doesn’t look that way right now.
GWEN IFILL: But Newt Gingrich does have another theory.
And that is that he — if you put his numbers together with Rick Santorum’s numbers, that he has enough of the conservative anti-Romney vote that he could still take Romney down.
Let’s talk about Rick Santorum. He is still in this race, even though he doesn’t seem to be competing in Florida. Could you imagine that happening? Has there been any talk, any common ground that would put that kind of axis together against Mitt Romney?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, Rick Santorum says he’s in the race to stay, too. You know, they usually say that right until the point they hold the news conference where they announce they’re pulling out.
But the fact is, one of the statewide surveys in Florida looked at where Santorum’s vote would go. And it was divided between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. It didn’t go overwhelmingly to Newt Gingrich.
GWEN IFILL: Does momentum count this year? It feels like we have stopped and started along the way. And no two contests so far have been anything like the one before or the one that follows.
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think, when we actually do get momentum, it will matter. And I think that’s why it’s so dangerous for Gingrich and Santorum if Romney starts to win a series of contests and build up real momentum.
But, initially, there hasn’t been. There’s been a two- or three-day momentum until the next contest, and then things have changed. The problem is, given the way this calendar is in February, a series of contests, but nothing really big until the end of the month, there may be a growing sense during that month that Romney will be the nominee. And that would be difficult for the other two.
GWEN IFILL: Six contests in February. Five of them, Romney won in 2008. Does that make the path all that much more narrow?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I think this February calendar, where we have a kind of lull, really works to Romney’s advantage, because one thing — there’s nothing to stop his momentum.
He will come out of Florida with a big victory, maybe even a double-digit victory. And there’s not going to be another contest where Gingrich or Santorum are in a position to defeat him. There’s only one debate scheduled.
GWEN IFILL: Or Ron Paul.
SUSAN PAGE: Or Ron Paul. Well, Ron Paul is pretty well-organized in some of these caucus states, Nevada, Colorado, Maine. I think he will show well in those states.
But we continue not to think of Ron Paul as a potential nominee, fairly or not. I think the assessment of political people is that he’s a factor for a cause, but perhaps not a nominee.
So where does Romney’s momentum coming out of Florida get stopped? It is going to be a whole month of pretty good news for Romney, and a problem for Newt Gingrich I think to get traction again.
GWEN IFILL: And no debates until the Feb. 22.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And no debates. That’s been Gingrich’s one area where he has — until the last one — or the last couple — he has outshined the field. So that’s difficult. Romney has the money. Romney will have the momentum.
The burden is on Gingrich to turn things around.
GWEN IFILL: Whatever will we do with our evenings?
Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, thank you both very much.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Gwen.