With double-digit leads in statewide polls, Mitt Romney earned a game-changing victory in the Florida primary, making him the first GOP candidate to win more than one of the state-by-state nomination contests.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, exit polls showed Romney at 46 percent, Newt Gingrich at 32 percent, Rick Santorum at 13 percent and Ron Paul at 7 percent.
With his latest win, Romney takes all 50 delegates at stake in Florida. As of tonight, Romney has won a cumulative total of 69 delegates in the GOP race. Gingrich has scored 23; Santorum, 14; Paul, 3. There are 2,286 delegates up for grabs in the GOP presidential race. To secure the nomination, a candidate must win more than half of the delegates, or 1,144. (According to the Washington Post, there’s no way any candidate can reach 1,144 delegates before March 24.)
According to exit polls, voters were mostly concerned about beating President Obama (nearly 50 percent) in the upcoming election. They were also very concerned about the economy in a state where the unemployment level is now at 9.9 percent, compared with the national average of 8.5 percent. An estimated 147,500 jobs have been lost in Florida since November 2008.
Senior citizens favored Romney by 51 percent, compared with Gingrich at 34 percent. Hispanic voters favored Romney by 53 percent and Gingrich at 30 percent. Women favored him by a wide 51 to 29 percent margin, and men, by 41 to 36. Romney received a large boost from early and absentee voters.
Almost two-thirds of the voters said they support the tea-party movement.
Romney’s win ends Gingrich’s recent streak of luck on the campaign trail – just 10 days after he scored a little expected victory over the former Massachusetts governor in the South Carolina primary.
After that win, Gingrich surged ahead in the Florida polls. But Romney fired back with a blitz of $7 million in Florida TV ads attacking his chief rival.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Romney said Gingrich “really can’t whine about negative campaigning when he launched a very negative campaign in South Carolina.”
“If you attack me, I’m not going to just sit back,” he warned.
At his Tampa, Fla., campaign headquarters, Romney declared, “Doing well in Florida is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally.”
The Wall Street Journal reported, “His advisers believe that Florida may have presented the last real threat to his claim on the nomination.”
After the polls closed, Gingrich vowed to continue the race.
“I think Florida did something very important coming on top of South Carolina,” he said. “It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate.”
Gingrich continued, “This is THE most important election of your lifetime. If Barack Obama gets re-elected, it will be a disaster for the United States of America. You can’t imagine how radical he’ll be in his second term.”
Romney thanked voters for the victory, saying he stands “ready to lead this party and this nation.”
“Primary contests are not easy, and they’re not supposed to be,” he said. “A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us, and we will win.
“And when we gather back here in Tampa seven months from now, ours will be a united party with a wining ticket for America.”