ORLANDO, Fla. ‑ Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney surged ahead of former House speaker Newt Gingrich to score a decisive victory Tuesday in Florida's Republican presidential primary and take all of the state's GOP delegates.
Results released around 11 p.m. EST gave Romney 46 percent of the vote to Gingrich's 32 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and libertarian standard-bearer Rep. Ron Paul trailed them with 13 and 7 percent respectively. Romney swept almost all of more affluent and suburban Central and South Florida along with Jacksonville (Duval County) while Gingrich mainly won counties in the more rural and conservative Florida Panhandle.
Exit poll results posted on CNN.com show that Romney got 52 percent of the women's vote vs. 28 percent for Gingrich, who has been dogged by issues of marital conduct. Women may have been the decisive factor in Romney's victory since the polls show only a 5-point difference in their shares of the male vote (41 percent for Romney vs. 36 for Gingrich).
Romney got 47 percent of the votes of college graduates vs. 29 percent for former history professor Gingrich, whose greatest appeal appears to be to tea party voters and the less educated and less affluent.
The candidates spent heavily on TV spots in the days leading up to the primary, fueled by lavish corporate contributions to Super PACs. Romney and Gingrich sought to exploit hot-button conservative fears about government involvement in health care and undocumented immigration along with attacks on Gingrich's ethics and character and Romney's predatory business practices at his private equity firm Bain Capital.
The right-wing website Newsmax.com reported that "a stream of negative attack ads costing tens of millions of dollars have flooded Florida's airwaves, and the vast majority of the commercials are being financed by a superPAC that is seeking to lower the poll numbers of the former House Speaker." ("Romney Forces Dominate Florida Airwaves," Jan. 30).
The article noted that in just one week the Romney campaign and a Super PAC supporting him had made almost $17 million in media buys vs. a paltry $2.2 million expenditure by Gingrich and the Super PAC supporting him. (SuperPACs are political action committees that can raise unlimited sums from any private entity or individual thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United and SpeechNow.org v. FEC decisions.) Citing information from opensecrets.org, the article notes that pro-Romney superPAC Restore Our Future had outspent the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future Super PAC by a 5-1 ratio ($16.6 million vs. $3.5 million) to air TV attack ads.
Working people in Florida rightfully may be skeptical that the Republican agenda of budget cuts, privatization, corporate giveaways and tax cuts for the rich will help them as they struggle with a failing economy and ever-increasing inequality and misery. The Sunshine State's recovery from the 2008 recession still lags, with its unemployment rate in December at 9.9 percent (well above the national rate of 8.5 percent) and 3.1 million working Floridians now receiving food stamps - a 10 percent increase in just the last year.
"Instead of running on issues, the Republicans' main issue is who can beat Obama," said Marlon Washington, field director of Working America's Orlando office, "which is problematic when jobs are few, and in a state where people are really feeling the hit" from budget cuts and foreclosures. Florida had the nation's seventh highest foreclosure rate in 2011, according to a report from RealtyTrac, an online search engine for foreclosed properties.
Valerie Cepero, 26, a pre-med student who has been unemployed for a year and is active with Occupy Orlando, called the Republicans "shameless in their disregard of the desires of the citizenry." Cepero singled out Romney for special scorn because of his August 2011 remark that "corporations are people," calling it an "abject embarrassment" to the candidate.
Florida, the fourth most populous U.S. state, will be a hotly contested prize in this year's presidential election because of its 29 electoral votes (tying it with New York). Progressive forces in Florida have begun preparing for Romney as the inevitable nominee. As Pink Slip Mitt, a campaign of Florida Watch Action, noted via Twitter Tuesday night: "The primary season is over. The general election season has begun. Game on." The group's website, PinkSlipMitt.org, has tools for anti-Romney activists, including a downloadable "pink slip" for use at his campaign events.
Photo: Supporters of the Dream Act protesting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the site of the Republican presidential candidate debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Jan. 23. Charles Dharapak/AP