Newt Gingrich’s on-again-off-again relationship with female voters swerved into breakup territory Tuesday night, when women in Florida voted for Mitt Romney over Gingrich by a massive 24-point margin. Romney won the women’s vote in the Sunshine State 52 to 28 percent as he cruised to a 14 percent margin overall.
The possible reasons for Romney’s lopsided victory with female voters range from his unabashed stagecraft, presenting himself as husband-father-grandfather-in-chief, to reminding voters of Gingrich’s own troubled marital history, which was put under a magnifying glass two weeks ago when Marianne Gingrich, his second wife, went on ABC’s 20/20 to accuse her ex-husband of asking for an open marriage to be with the woman who is now his third wife.
But Kellyanne Conway, an expert on women’s voting trends and Gingrich’s pollster and senior adviser, said women in Florida who were influenced by Gingrich’s marital history were never potential supporters in the first place. “That’s already baked into the cake,” she said.
Instead, Conway said, Romney won the women’s vote in the last week before the primary for one reason alone—his full-frontal assault on Florida’s airwaves, with $16 million worth of negative advertising against her boss.
“Women have been late-in-the-game deciders. They weigh all of the issues, all of the images, and all of the information and make a choice almost at the last minute,” she said, noting that women were twice as likely as men in Florida to be undecided in the final days of the campaign. “That’s a perfect storm in front of $16 million worth of ads.”
Coming out of South Carolina, Conway said, Gingrich had only a small gender gap in Florida. But after 10 days of sustained ads from Romney and the super PAC supporting him, she said, he opened a lead among women that was impossible to close.
“If you heard 40 times in a day that Newt Gingrich takes the wings off of butterflies, eventually you’d believe it,” Conway said.
But Gina Covell Maddox, from Gulf Breeze, Fla., who voted for Romney and started the Women for Mitt Romney group on Facebook, said ads were never a factor for her.
“That perplexes me,” she said. “The women I talked to are worried about the future for their children. I think they feel more confident that Mitt cares about what happens to their children more than Newt.”
Maddox also said she thinks Gingrich’s personal background did hurt him among Florida women. “I hate to say it, because they don’t come right out and say anything about Newt’s three wives, but I get a lot of ‘family values’ when women in my circles talk about what’s important to them.”
Her advice for Gingrich going into the next GOP contests? “Go back and mend the fences with the two ex-wives,” she said. “He says the church forgave him, but part of repentance is you also have to have the forgiveness of the people you harmed.”
Cheri Jacobis, a veteran GOP campaign manager who is now president of Capitol Strategies in Washington, D.C., had different advice for Gingrich. Calling his hold on the women’s vote “tenuous at best” coming out of South Carolina, she suggested Gingrich return to the positive message he had in the Palmetto State, especially in the debates there, no matter what Romney is doing.
“Newt does well when he is positive and uplifting and inspiring,” she said. “When he goes negative, he loses people, and women are the first to go.”
Conway said that’s exactly the plan to make sure Gingrich does not suffer a repeat performance of his results from Florida.
“There are ways to respond and contrast without remaining in the mosh pit,” she said. Gingrich will present positive solutions on jobs, the economy, and foreign policy, as well as his pro-life platform. “We will affirmatively say and show that we respect women’s intelligence enough not to play that game.”
That game—the relentless attacks on Gingrich, his background, and his personal character—has clearly put the Gingrich operation on the defensive, but they say they’ll regroup and fight back with what Gingrich does best: delivering policy speeches, rolling out an optimistic vision for the country’s most difficult problems, and, they hope, revealing Mitt Romney for the man they believe him to be.
“The boy scout started dancing with the devil,” Conway said of Romney’s attacks on Gingrich leading into the Florida vote. “The mother in me recoiled … He behaved like the executive who gets drunk at the Christmas party and no one ever looks at him the same way again.”