In every way but the one that should count, the Florida primary may be the end to the Republican race. In a CNN/TIME/ORC poll released Wednesday, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, widely considered the two most electable Republican candidates, were neck-and-neck, with 36 percent of the state’s Republicans behind Romney and 34 percent backing Gingrich.
The two have been battling tooth and claw in the Sunshine State this week. Gingrich has tried to depict Romney a milquetoast moderate in the line of former state governor Charlie Crist. Gingrich, the former speaker’s campaign has tried to show, is more like popular Senator Marco Rubio. That narrative skipped the rails when Gingrich ran a Spanish-language ad that said Romney was “anti-immigrant” and Rubio himself stepped in to call foul.
“This kind of language is more than just unfortunate,” Rubio told The Miami Herald. “It’s inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn’t belong in this campaign.”
They’ve put on quite a show, and if present trends continue and Gingrich or Romney succeeds in lassoing Florida, that could be the whole rodeo. But what gets lost among all the bitter pageantry is the little matter of delegates.
A Republican candidate needs 1,144 of the 2,286 available delegates to truly get his hat in the presidential-nomination ring, and, even after Florida, only 3.8 percent of the total number of delegates will have been assigned. Which hardly seems like a done deal at all.
But that’s been forgotten, says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, because the press and the public are hungry for a narrative—any narrative—that distinguishes a frontrunner.
“It’s really not about delegates in the coverage, it’s the drama and the pathos that goes with the drama,” said Sheinkopf, who has consulted for Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and Michael Bloomberg. “Every event is either tragic, humble, provocative, or death-defying. Which is absolute nonsense.”
It may be nonsense, but it’s nonsense with a consequence, Sheinkopf says, because the winner in Florida may be able to ride that victory straight through the doors of the Republican Convention.
“What can happen here is Newt Gingrich can capture the Republican Party or Mitt Romney can capture the Republican Party,” Sheinkopf said.
The electoral math has been turned upside down this year, with some states deciding to push up their primary schedules. Florida did so, and was penalized by the Republican National Committee with the loss of half its delegates.
But has the public paid the delegate counts any mind? On Wednesday, Rick Santorum told The Hill that he might make his way out of town before the winner-take-all contest for Florida’s 50 delegates on Tuesday.
“The national media have propped up, as they have in the past, with two candidates for your choosing,” Santorum vented at a Florida rally Tuesday. “It’s always two candidates they feel comfortable promoting.”
Santorum campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley told The Daily Beast that the small number of delegates awarded so far “just goes to show you the race is still wide open.” He said that Santorum’s campaign has benefited by this year’s primary lineup, which has had some of its significance stolen as states scrambled for earlier slots on the calendar.
“Their [the states’] prominence and prowess in the process gets hurt a little bit because they don’t have the huge number of delegates they would have had,” Gidley said.
As for narratives, Gidley doubts that Romney and Gingrich will be able to convince the American people with or without Florida. “Mitt Romney’s narrative is ‘I’ve got the most money and I’ve got the most infrastructure,’” Gidley said. “Boy, is that one inspiring bumper sticker.”
Gidley said Gingrich is pushing “grandiose ideas” with none of the plans necessary to implement them. “The problem is their narratives have been debunked for the most part from the beginning,” he said.
Sheinkopf disagrees, and thinks Gingrich could spin a Florida win into a frontrunner’s tale, and win the Republican nod. “If he does win Florida, or if he comes close, the narrative is, ‘I’m as angry as you are in the smokestack states,’” Sheinkopf said.
Given that most people are not aware of the delegate count, that it’s gotten little press coverage, and that a hankering for a good story tends to overwhelm rational thought, there’s little stopping the Republican candidate who can convince the electorate that a measly victory in terms of delegates is in fact a staggering popular mandate.
“We’re not dealing with politics anymore, we’re dealing with entertainment and gossip,” Sheinkopf said.