3:00 P.M., EST
MODERATOR: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us at this Foreign Press Center teleconference. We have with us today Mr. Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute and the chief spokesman for the institute’s national polls. Mr. Brown has over 30 years of experience as a political journalist and editor in Washington, D.C., New England, and Florida. And he’s here with us today to discuss the – or today’s GOP primary in Florida. So with that, I’ll just turn it over to Peter.
MR. BROWN: Good afternoon. I don’t really have remarks. I was told you guys – that there was – that many of the reporters had questions about the primary and where it goes from here. So why don’t we just start with questions?
OPERATOR: If you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please un-mute your phone and record your first and last name clearly when prompted.
MR. BROWN: Also, I mean, I’ll – I – and if you don’t even have specific questions, if there’s a subject you want me to talk about, I’ll be happy to do that. But why don’t you go ahead – you guys pick the subjects and the specific questions if you want.
MODERATOR: While we’re waiting for questions to come in, Peter, would – could you talk about the latest polling --
MR. BROWN: Sure. If you’ve been confused by the large numbers of polls you’re seeing out of Florida, that’s just what’s happening these days. There’s a proliferation of polls. The majority have Mr. Romney with a double-digit lead over Mr. Gingrich. There are a couple that have it in single digits, but the majority have it in double digits. And the Quinnipiac poll released yesterday morning with – based on interviews over the weekend through Sunday night found Mr. Romney with a 14-point lead over Mr. Gingrich. And what tends to kind of strengthen that case is we also asked voters whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the candidates. And frankly, Gingrich’s favorables aren’t that good. It’s only, like, 51-42 favorable among Republicans in a Republican primary, whereas Romney’s was, I think, 60-24 – clearly much, much better.
Mr. Romney, in the Quinnipiac poll, frankly, is also taking away Gingrich’s supposed base. Mr. Gingrich says that he is the conservative candidate and trying to paint Mr. Romney as a squishy moderate, but what the Quinnipiac poll found was that three key groups that are part of the conservative base – self-described conservatives, Tea Party members, and white evangelical Christians – all are going towards Mr. Romney over Mr. Gingrich. Now, it’s not gigantic, but if Romney is winning among what is essentially the conservative base, then that’s why he’s going to win the primary. He’s doing much, much better among other groups within the Republican coalition, so that Mr. Romney has done a very strong job over the last 10 days. He’s stopped Mr. Gingrich’s momentum cold coming out of South Carolina and now has a very solid double-digit lead heading into today’s voting.
It’s also worth nothing that several hundred thousand Floridians have already voted. Florida has what’s called early voting; you can vote up to, like, 10 days before the election at a variety of polling places, and many, many Floridians take advantage of that.
MODERATOR: And could you also talk about Florida’s demographics?
MR. BROWN: Sure. Florida, unlike South Carolina, where Mr. Gingrich won, Florida is a better microcosm of the country. South Carolina is one of perhaps the two or three most conservative states in the country, whereas Florida is what’s – is a swing state, and it’s a pretty good representative of the country. There are really five mini-states within the state of Florida. Many of you, I know, are in South Florida today. South Florida really is like the northeastern United States. It’s heavily ethnic. It is majority minority in some parts of South Florida. Cuban Americans are a very big part of the Republican primary electorate. It has a significant African American population in that part of the state. So that it is – South Florida is a lot like the northern United – northeastern United States.
Now, the northern part of Florida, called the panhandle, that runs across the northern part of the state, is a more conservative area. It’s much like South Georgia and South Alabama, frankly. And so from those two different parts of the states, you see completely different politics. There’s an old joke in Florida that goes, “The farther south in Florida you go, the farther north you are,” in terms of attitudes.
Going across the middle of the state is what’s called the I-4 corridor. It starts on the east coast around Daytona Beach and goes straight west through Orlando and its suburbs into Tampa and St. Pete and their suburbs. And that’s really the key swing district in the state.
Up around Jacksonville, you have an area that has two different demographic groups that control that area, one of which is African Americans. It has a significant African American population. But it is also an area in which there’s a very large military presence. And there are a lot of retirees who are former military. And they tend to be a more conservative group. Obviously, African Americans tend to be a more Democratic group.
And finally, the fifth state is along the Gulf Coast, often called the Gold Coast of Florida, which tends to be a more affluent area and tends to be a – it’s not as big as the other four areas we talked about in terms of population, but it’s very fast growing. And it has a – it’s an upper-income area.
Hope that helps.
MODERATOR: That’s great. I think we have one questioner.
MR. BROWN: Hi.
QUESTION: My name is Bridgit Dusseaux (ph). I work for AFP, Agence France Presse. And I just wanted to come back on what you said about Newt Gingrich. I’ve got several questions. Because would you say for – that it is over for him if he loses big in Florida?
Yeah, go ahead. Sorry.
MR. BROWN: He clearly doesn’t think so. He’s talking about taking this to Convention. But then all candidates say that while – before the polls close. Clearly, Mr. Gingrich intends to keep going, at least through Super Tuesday. The problem for Mr. Gingrich is February. It is unlikely to be very good for Mr. Gingrich. It’s – firstly, there are very few contests. There are only two to speak of. There’s a caucus in Nevada that’s this Saturday, if I’m not mistaken. And then there’s a primary in Michigan in a couple of weeks. Those are both states that Mr. Romney carried when he ran in the primaries four years ago, and every expectation is he will win those primaries – the caucus and that primary. Well, if that’s the case, that means Gingrich is going to have to go five weeks until Super Tuesday before he can have a chance to win anything. As you know, there are about 10 states that are going to vote on Super Tuesday, some of them southern states where Mr. Gingrich might do well. The question is what happens to the next five weeks, assuming that Mr. Romney wins the victory that the polls are predicting.
QUESTION: Would you say he can bounce back?
MR. BROWN: Well, the question – there are a couple more practical questions. Can he raise money? Donors are famous for backing winners and running from losers. So the question is: Over the next five weeks, when Mr. Gingrich is unlikely to win a primary, who’s going to donate money to him? One would – conversely, one would expect that Mr. Romney’s going to have a very lucrative February, that he will be able to rebuild his cash substantially. Again, donors like to contribute to winners. And Mr. Romney, if he wins tonight as projected, will be a winner and will be out trying to raise as much money as possible because Super Tuesday will be very expensive. There are a lot of big states that vote on Tuesday. Ohio votes on Super Tuesday, Texas votes on Super Tuesday, Georgia votes on Super Tuesday, Virginia votes on Super Tuesday. So that it’s going to cost money to compete.
Now, obviously in Florida, Mr. Romney just had several times as many television commercials on the air as Mr. Gingrich, and that’s because he had more money. Iowa and New Hampshire are very nice places, but they are really anomalies in American politics. In those states, candidates – voters get to know candidates up close in their livings room, meet them on their supermarkets, et cetera. But that ends once you leave New Hampshire, and to a degree South Carolina. Florida’s the first major state in the country, and from here on we go to big states. And the thing about big states is the way that candidates meet voters is in their living rooms through their television sets. And the more money you have, the more TV ads you can buy. Candidates with the most money sometimes lose, but it’s a good thing to have if you’re a candidate. And Romney will be in a much better shape coming out of here, in all likelihood, than will Mr. Gingrich in the cash flow department.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Why do you think he didn’t do better in Florida, Mr. Gingrich, because he was first in the poll to start with?
MR. BROWN: I think that – a couple of things. Firstly, Romney outspent him on television a great deal and drove home both negative messages about Mr. Romney – against – about Mr. Gingrich, and positive messages about Mr. Romney. Again, he dominated the television airways. And that’s an important thing.
Number two, Florida is a less conservative state than South Carolina. And the demographics of Florida were more hospitable to Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich, as opposed to South Carolina where the reverse was true.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. So can Mr. Gingrich bounce back now, as he did before --
MR. BROWN: Well, he’s already shown – had three lives. He’s been written off three times previously since this began, so it would be foolish to write him off completely. Cats have nine lives, and if Mr. Gingrich is catlike, then maybe he’ll be able to come back. We’ll see. The betting line in London, my guess, is will – after tonight will be more heavily favored for Mr. Romney.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. Thank you very much. But no, I’ve got another question --
MR. BROWN: Sure.
QUESTION: -- because you said also in Florida that most of Mr. Gingrich’s base went to Mr. Romney.
MR. BROWN: No, I – no, what I said – I think – I don’t – let me clarify. What I said is in the a latest Quinnipiac poll, the three groups that make up the conservative base – self-described conservatives, white evangelical Christians, and Tea Party supporters – all buy a small amount said they would vote for Mr. Romney over Mr. Gingrich. Now if Mr. Gingrich can’t even carry what is – he considers his own base, then he’s got a problem. And if the votes tonight bear that out, he’ll have a problem.
OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please un-mute your phone and record your first and last name and a media affiliation. If you’d like to withdraw your question, press *2.
Our next question comes from Ani Sandu with Radio Romania. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello. I wanted to ask, looking ahead, do you think Romney could win the nomination, and what would his advantages be besides money?
MR. BROWN: In the nomination or in the general election?
QUESTION: The nomination.
MR. BROWN: Oh. Well, I think if --
QUESTION: And my next question would be the general election.
MR. BROWN: His advantages in the general election over Gingrich, in the --
MR. BROWN: In other words, which would be better against President Obama? First of all, yes, I think if Mr. Romney wins tonight, he will become the favorite for the nomination, and a fairly strong one.
On the question of November and who runs best against Mr. Obama, the data is very clear that Mitt Romney runs a good deal better against Barack Obama than does Mr. Gingrich. Quinnipiac is – for instance, even in Florida last week, Quinnipiac did a poll that asked voters who would they vote if it was Obama versus Gingrich, who would they vote if it was Obama versus Romney, Romney and Obama are in a flat-footed tie, whereas Gingrich is down 10 points.
And that’s not dissimilar to what we’re seeing in other states and nationally. Mr. Romney seems to run better and the polls show that. Gallup had a poll out this week of the 12 biggest and most important swing states, which was a dead heat between Obama and Romney. Mr. Gingrich trailed by about 10 points in that same measurement. All the data indicates that Romney would be stronger, at least the public opinion data.
Now, Mr. Gingrich says otherwise, and perhaps. But the one indication we have is polling data, and it’s pretty consistent that Mr. Romney would be a stronger candidate in November. He’d probably – and that’s for the following reasons: He is by what is in the Republican primary perhaps a liability, the fact that he’s not thought as perhaps as conservative as some would like, the fact that he’s not as conservative as some in the Republican Party might like makes him more acceptable to swing voters and independents who might be more comfortable with a farther-right candidate.
Number two, Mr. Romney has the trump card. He’s a former businessman; he has a very good business record. And in an election that will almost certainly center on who can best fix the American economy, Mr. Romney has an edge there. There are a bunch of other things where he may not be as well thought of, but on the issue of the economy, he’s thought of as better able to handle it than Mr. Gingrich among Republicans. And when paired against President Obama, at least in the Quinnipiac polls, we ask who can best handle the economy, Mr. Romney wins by a – not a double-digit margin but a single-digit margin.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jakob Nielsen with Politikan. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking the call. I have two questions, actually. One is: Do you find – do you believe in the reports that the Republican establishment will be funding Mr. Santorum, encouraging him to stay in the race in order not to have Gingrich run as the sole opponent to Mr. Romney, as it were? It’s the first question. And the second question is: Could we have your assessment on the impact that Ron Paul is having on this primary? Obviously – obvious to anyone, even himself, that he’s not going to be the nominee, he’s staying in there. What impact is he having and what is he hoping to have an impact? Thank you very much.
MR. BROWN: On the first question, I have no way of knowing whether – who’s funding Santorum and why. I mean, I just don’t know. Hypothetically, if that were the case, that would probably help Romney because it’s – in one way, which is it would split the anti-Romney vote. But we don’t know.
The one thing to consider is that – and this is highly, highly unlikely – the – if Santorum were to stay in the race and Ron Paul were to stay in the race for a substantial amount of time, you would then mathematically – if Romney is not able to just sweep it up – have a mathematical situation where it’s possible – although highly, highly unlikely – and let me – where no one would have enough delegates for the nomination when the process was over.
In other words, if Rick Santorum gets out, then there will be three candidates in the race. Ron Paul, who is – who I will address in a second – who’s running for his own reasons, not to win the – because he knows he can’t win the nomination, Romney, and Gingrich. And therefore, it’s unlikely that there’d be a big enough split so that, like, one candidate would be denied a majority of delegates. But if Santorum got in the race, or stayed in the race, and did reasonably well and was able to win delegates in every state, then that raises the mathematical possibility of a, quote, “deadlocked convention.” I think it’s highly unlikely, but it’s possible. With Santorum out of the race, it’s impossible.
Your second question about Ron Paul – Ron Paul has a very deep but narrow niche in the Republican primary. And those are people who are fiscal conservatives, people who believe in a very limited role of government, and are laissez faire on so-called social issues, and tend to be non-interventionist in foreign policy. He has a niche. It’s not one that’s going to win the nomination. He knows that. He’s – basically, he’s said that. But he does represent a significant number of people, many of them young people, who the Republican Party needs to attract in November, which is one of the reasons why nobody is right – doing negative commercials about Ron Paul. Nobody wants to alienate his supporters.
QUESTION: Yeah. So – am I still on? Could I do a quick follow-up?
MR. BROWN: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. Just on the Ron Paul thing, do you see, like – obviously, getting hold of Mitt – of Ron Paul’s very young supporter and his very energetic supporting base would be very interesting for any Republican candidate. Do you see Mitt Romney making any major concessions in order to see that happen? Maybe earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan is one thing I could think of.
MR. BROWN: I would be surprised to see either Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich, if they were to be in the position to win the nomination, to make a strategic – a major change in their positions on a major issue. I think the downside of that would be much greater than the potential upside. It would be obvious what he was doing, and it would be changing a position. And the one thing Mitt Romney needs to do is not give opponents the opportunity to say there he goes again, he’s changing his view, because he obviously has on some other issues.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MR. BROWN: You’re welcome.
OPERATOR: Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please record your name and media affiliation when prompted. To withdraw your question, press *2.
MODERATOR: And Peter, I had one more question for you.
MR. BROWN: Sure.
MODERATOR: In the polling that you’ve seen, what are the major weaknesses for the candidates? Why do they have such high unfavorables --
MR. BROWN: Well, Romney’s is not high at all. Gingrich’s is. Romney’s was a 60-24 favorable to unfavorable. That’s quite good. Gingrich’s, I think, was 51-42, something like that. Gingrich’s record – there are a number of issues and things that Romney has made television commercials about that we’re all aware of – his resignation from the House, some of his statements. That’s why. And obviously, Mr. Gingrich is not playing as well in Florida as he did in South Carolina.
QUESTION: But so you think the negative advertising has had a larger impact than debates or retail --
MR. BROWN: Negative advertising works. Everybody complains about it and everybody does it because it works. And those who have the most obvious negatives that can be turned into television commercials are the most vulnerable. But the notion that – I mean I first – frankly don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion this is an unusually bitter campaign. I don’t know how many of you were in the United States four years ago, but the Obama and Clinton people called each other a lot of names and went after each other consistently for about five months. And the last time I checked, the President of the United States’ name is Barack Obama, so it didn’t seem to hurt him in the general election.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. BROWN: Anything else?
OPERATOR: Our next question --
MODERATOR: It looks like we have one more questioner.
MR. BROWN: Sure.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ani Sandu with Radio Romania. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello. I just have one more question.
MR. BROWN: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you comment on the importance of debate in this campaign for --
MR. BROWN: Well, there’s – yes. Debates have been important. They clearly have made a difference for Mr. Gingrich. They brought him from a two percent in the poll kind of guy to the point where he won South Carolina, and has become the major anti-Romney candidate. Debates have negated his – in many – in the early stage, negated his inability to raise large amounts of money. But it’s a fair comment that Mr. Romney seemed to have done as well or better than Mr. Gingrich in the two Florida debates and so that too is, I would argue, is one of the reasons why Mr. Romney seems to have spurted ahead.
The other thing to think about is there’s only one or two debates scheduled between now and Super Tuesday. And they have traditionally been, as I said, places that – or events that have helped Mr. Gingrich, more often than not, and he’s gonna not have a lot of those opportunities.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. That looks like it was our last questioner. So I just wanted to thank you --
MR. BROWN: No problem.
MODERATOR: -- for joining us today and thank you everyone for calling in. We’ll look forward to the results tonight.
MR. BROWN: Have a good day. Take care.