Is Florida About Money or the Party?

One of the things that you’re going to hear a lot of is that Mitt Romney’s big win in Florida tomorrow — and per the polling, it looks certain — wasn’t caused by debates or Newt’s crazy moon rhetoric or the support of party leaders, but by Romney’s money advantage. Jonathan Chait, for example:

Mitt Romney is pulling away in Florida, which has less to do with a “more focused message” or increased “swagger,” or any other narrative the press reads into it, than a simple ability to spend Newt Gingrich into the ground. (The television ad disparity has been about four to one.)

I agree with this to some extent, but there’s another major factor involved, which is the spin control exercised by party leaders.

It’s not just that a significant number of GOP opinion leaders were bashing Newt. What’s probably more important is that as far as I can see absolutely no one — with the exception of Sarah Palin, I guess — hit Romney for running a vicious attack campaign against a fellow Republican. Meanwhile, Newt was severely disciplined by those same opinion leaders when he (and Rick Perry) attacked Romney’s business practices.

Imagine, for example, if Rick Perry had done well and it was a Romney/Perry race, with party leaders splitting between them but believing both were acceptable. I strongly suspect that if Romney went all scorched earth against Perry in that scenario that many neutral party leaders would start talking about how Ronald Reagan never ran a negative ad in his life (doesn’t matter if it’s true or not) and about how Romney should dial it back some. They might also quietly warn Romney that if he didn’t cut back that he’d feel the consequences in fundraising and other resources. Meanwhile, Perry would have plenty of surrogates to go on every Fox News program to knock the ads down, and those surrogates would have a very sympathetic hearing much of the time.

Remember, we’re talking here about GOP primary voters. That’s a relatively high-information group. Virtually all of them, I’d guess, watch Fox News instead of CNN (or, obviously, MSNBC). Quite a few of them listen to Rush Limbaugh or other conservative talk radio hosts, and some of them read conservative blogs. Remember too that most of them are inclined to like all of the candidates: after all, they’re all on Team GOP. So they may tend to resist stuff they’re hearing in ads if they also hear evidence to the contrary from their favorite talk radio show. After all, we expect each and every one of them to completely discount the attacks they’ll be seeing from Barack Obama in a few months. But if party leaders are inviting Romney to continue, even if that’s just by staying quiet, well, that’s going to make a difference.

It’s also worth mentioning that fundraising is connected to party support, so the fact that Romney has such a large lead is at least to some extent a function of party choice, and not Romney’s abilities.

On the whole, then, I suspect that what’s happening in Florida is very much a party story, and even less of a candidate story than one might think.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.