Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary, and won big. But will the former House Speaker’s new momentum be enough to stop the Mitt Romney juggernaut?
Conventional wisdom holds that the race is still Romney’s to lose. He enjoys a significant lead in Florida, where the next primary will be held January 31. The former Massachusetts governor also has plenty of money to burn on television ads in the Sunshine State, and he has had a formidable organization on the ground there for months.
Still, given the race’s newly fluid nature, observers note that a strong ground game can only do so much for Romney given his weak standing with conservative voters.
“Florida will be more delegates than all other races (so far) combined [and is winner-take-all] and will be rocket fuel for Newtie as he comes out of here,” one GOP operative told TIME’s Mark Halperin on Saturday. “McCain [in 2008 had zero people in Florida until a couple days after South Carolina [in 2008]. Ground game is not a factor in presidential primaries in Florida. Momentum and being a conservative is. Mitt isn’t running as a conservative. His only hope was the fool’s errand of inevitability.”
Veteran Republican strategist Lynn Krogh, who worked with Gingrich in Iowa, told The Daily Caller that Florida “could thin the race to a head-to-head match up” between Romney and the the former House Speaker.
“[South Carolina] could be seen as a big momentum shift and a possible consolidation of the conservative vote [for Gingrich],” Krogh explained.
Even so, the ubiquitous political forecaster Larry Sabato told TheDC that Romney is still the favorite to win the nomination despite the bruising he took Saturday night.
“Romney will still be the favorite, given his vastly superior national organization and Gingrich’s unpreparedness,” he said. “Few people who know presidential politics will think that Gingrich is likely to be the nominee, even after a big victory in SC.”
Indeed, even if Gingrich is able to pull off an upset in Florida, the primary calendar heading into February still favors Romney. Nevada will be the next state to vote, and given its large Mormon population it will almost certainly go for Romney.
After Nevada will be Maine, Colorado and Minnesota, three states Romney won in 2008. Then comes Missouri, where Gingrich failed to even get on the ballot.
Contests in Arizona and Michigan round out the month. Romney did well in Arizona in 2008 but lost to long-serving senator — and native son — John McCain. This time McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake have already endorsed Romney there.
And Romney is something of a “favorite son” candidate in Michigan, where his father George Romney was a popular governor.
Still, the momentum is now very much with Gingrich after South Carolina, and Romney needs to improve his game if he hopes to secure the nomination before the summer.
Most candidates, Sabato argued, get better with practice on the campaign trail — but Romney has somehow gotten worse. And should his campaign continue to stumble, a new candidate might very well emerge to stop Gingrich.
“[Romney] has to reverse that trend or what many say is impossible — the late entry of ‘someone else’ — could become very possible,” Sabato said.