Drudge says the exit polls show Romney by 14 so we should get a call promptly at 8 p.m. ET. You’re watching for the final margin and for Newt’s speech afterward. If Mitt makes it to 50 percent in a closed primary he’s got a dynamite talking point tomorrow; if Gingrich holds him to a single-digit spread, then … “moral victory” I guess? (Newt assured ABC this morning that “I’m not going to lose big in Florida.”) Romney’s speech should be the standard “you can tell I’m conservative because I love America super lots” message but Newt’s could go different ways. Gracious loser? Big-picture “vision”? Pep talk to his supporters to battle on towards the convention? Or something bitter about how Romney hates religious liberty and Holocaust survivors? Maybe it’ll be all four, with Good Newt and Bad Newt battling for his soul before our very eyes.
Full exit polls are coming at eight but first a few scraps from CBS:
Two in three Florida primary voters say the presidential debates were an important factor in their vote, according to early CBS News exit polls. That’s a positive sign for Mitt Romney, who was widely seen as besting rival Newt Gingrich in the two Sunshine State debates over the past week…
Electability was what Florida Republican voters were seeking in a candidate: 45 percent said the most important candidate quality is that they could defeat President Obama. That was followed by having the right experience (20 percent), having strong character (17 percent) and being a true conservative (13 percent)…
A majority of Florida Republican voters – 57 percent — were happy with the candidates on the ballot. But in a potentially troubling sign for Republicans in this swing state, 39 percent said they were not satisfied.
More from our Greenroomer Karl, who culled Fox News’s exit poll data from Twitter: “Romney winning 58% of those who say beating Obama is biggest priority. Romney winning seniors by 15% over Newt. Romney is last among those who say electing a ‘true conservative’ is most important (shocka). Romney winning Hispanics by 27%. Gingrich only leading Romney among evangelicals by 4%.” Seniors used to be Newt’s bread and butter; hard to imagine anyone staying competitive in Florida when you’re in that deep a hole with that demographic. One other fun fact via the NYT:
Negative ads were so prevalent in the final week before the Florida primary that they accounted for 92 percent of all campaign commercials that ran.
And the most heavily broadcast commercial this past weekend was not one featuring Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich but Tom Brokaw, the former NBC News anchor whose image the Romney campaign co-opted for an ad that used a 25-second clip from an old newscast on Mr. Gingrich’s political troubles.
A consolation prize for Santorum fans tonight: According to PPP, he leads Romney by 11 points in next week’s nonbinding primary in Missouri and fares better head to head against Romney in Ohio than Gingrich does. His favorable ratings are also vastly higher than Mitt’s and Newt’s in both states. If Gingrich dropped out soon, Santorum would stand a real chance of consolidating the Not Romney vote and winning the nomination. But watch the clip below; Newt’s promising to battle on for another six to eight months if need be, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll do it. You know who that benefits?
Here’s the Google Florida results map, or of course you could follow along in the sidebar with the handy Townhall election widget. Lots of updates coming, especially once we get the full exit polls, so stand by. For what it’s worth, I’ve now settled on a candidate to support in the race. He isn’t perfect — who is? — but he’s more human than Romney and less destructive than Newt. Meet the solution to our problems.
Update: Let’s get the ball rolling tonight with Rick Tyler of Newt’s Super PAC wondering whether a “birth defect” might be the cause of Romney’s lying.
Update: Most polls in Florida closed at 7 p.m. but the panhandle is open until eight. Even so, as of 7:15 ET, results are already being reported. As I write this Romney has nearly 100,000 votes in the bank and is above 50 percent. Stay tuned.
Update: Romney and his PAC spent $15 million on ads in Florida. Total number of positive ads he ran in the state: One. It ran 15 times. And it wasn’t even in English.
Update: Zeke Miller of BuzzFeed wonders whether and when Newt will follow Hillary’s path from 2008 in rallying behind the nominee in hopes of a cabinet position. My guess, given Gingrich’s temperament: Never. In fact, given how deep the bitterness runs, Newt might take this as his reward:
In a Washington Post/ABC News poll last week, 49 percent of the respondents nationwide held an unfavorable view of Mr. Romney, while only 31 percent had a favorable one. That is a reversal from last September, when more people held a favorable view of Mr. Romney than an unfavorable one.
Independents, in particular, now have a less favorable opinion of Mr. Romney, with favorable opinions dropping from a high in the mid-40s in late November to a low of 23 percent last week, according to the Post/ABC News poll.
Update: Your photo of the day. Think Newt’s pessimistic about tonight?
Update: Just across the wires, Romney’s fundraising haul was as impressive as you’d expect last quarter: $24 million, up from $14 million in the third quarter and more than double Newt’s take of $10 million. Gingrich may want to run for another six or eight months but right now there’s only one guy in the field who can afford to do that in a meaningful way.
Update: Promptly at 8 p.m., everyone calls Florida for Romney. Now we wait for the margin and to see which Newt we get during the concession speech.
Update: Full exit polls from CNN right here. Back in a few minutes with highlights.
Update: The story of the exit polls is simple: Romney beat Gingrich across the board, in virtually every single demographic except the utmost conservative (“strong” tea party supporters, those who say abortion should always be illegal, etc.). A sample of his margins of victory: Women by 22, Latinos by 23, seniors by 17, married women by 23 (Marianne’s revenge?), tea-party supporters by two, Catholics by 26 (likely a byproduct of Romney’s advantage among Latinos), those who said the economy is the most important issue by 20, and even those who say they’re falling behind economically by a single point. As I write this, with two thirds of all precincts reporting, he’s at 46.9 percent. He probably won’t get to 50, but he may very well top the combined total of Gingrich and Santorum, which stands right now at 44.8 percent.
Update: Chris Cillizza notes that not only was the Florida electorate more Republican than that of the previous three states (thanks to the closed primary), it was also more conservative than it was four years ago when McCain won. Expect to see Team Mitt pointing that out early and often tomorrow as proof of his appeal to the right. Meanwhile, John Ellis wonders if the media’s interest in Newt is about to evaporate:
The big dogs, of course, will keep at it. Dan Balz of The Washington Post and John Heilemann of New York Magazine won’t be touched. But everyone who isn’t a brand name political reporter is back on the leash. The army is already starting to demobilize as you read this. It just doesn’t know it yet.
This is how it ends for Newt Gingrich. On the day after the South Carolina primary, he had two busloads of reporters, bloggers and electronic media types following his every word. Tomorrow, he won’t need two buses. He’ll be lucky if the seats are filled on one.
Presidential candidates survive on the oxygen of media coverage. It’s what keeps them going, enables them to keep raising money. Once the coverage is withdrawn, it’s only a matter of time before their candidacies expire. Out of sight, out of mind, out of money.
After tonight, all but one of the GOP presidential candidates will start being taken off life support. By the time we get to Super Tuesday in early March, you probably won’t even remember Rick Santorum’s name.