As Florida Republicans get ready to cast their ballots in a bitterly contested Republican presidentail primary, they will likely get some food for thought from the latest USA Today, Gallup swing states poll which shows that if the election were held today, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would be tied but that if former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the nominee the GOP would trail by double digiits. And Romney is tied but not tied: he actually comes out ahead of Obama in this poll.

The huge size of the difference in how the Republican Party would do with Romney versus Gingrich at the head of the ticket is likely to influence some votes in Florida where, like elsewhere, the number one priority of many Republicans voters is to find a candidate who can beat Obama. The numbers are not good for Gingrich:

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney essentially ties Barack Obama in the nation’s key battlegrounds, a USA TODAY/Gallup Swing States survey finds, while rival Newt Gingrich now trails the president by a decisive 14 percentage points.

That reflects a significant decline by the former House speaker since early December, when he led Obama by three points.

The poll of the dozen states likely to determine the outcome of November’s election addresses the electability argument that has driven many Republicans: Which GOP contender has the best chance of denying Obama a second term?

In a head-to-head race, Romney leads Obama by a statistically insignificant percentage point, 48%-47%, the survey finds.

But Obama leads Gingrich, 54%-40%. The president’s standing against him has risen nine points since early December; Gingrich has fallen by eight.

Gingrich fares less well than Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who trails Obama by seven points, 50%-43%, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who also trails by seven points, 51%-44%.

“Gingrich’s efforts to win the Republican nomination have set back his efforts to win the general election,” says political scientist Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. Trying to appeal to Tea Party conservatives has “moved him out of the mainstream of American politics.”

This will be the problem for Romney as well: if a candidate goes too far to the right he/she has little chance of sawing off that chunk of independent voters who are not former Republican conservatives, and even less of a chance attracting moderates, and Democratic centrists.

The Swing States survey focuses on the nation’s most competitive battlegrounds: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The findings presumably reflect the barrage of attacks on Gingrich’s temperament and record by Romney and other prominent Republicans, from Arizona Sen. John McCain to former Senate majority leader Bob Dole. The former House speaker has drawn fierce fire since winning the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 and surging to the top of national polls.

I’ve noted here often that Gingrich was evolving into one of the biggest turn offs to moderates. He has made a major part of his campaign talking about “Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney,” using the word moderate as if it’s a notch or two above being a socialist. On TV yesterday at one point he referred to “Massachusetts liberal” Mitt Romney, which was either an attempt to define Romney further left or a sign, perhaps, the he realized his use of the word moderate was going to turn off many voters he will need not just in the election but in polls that show he can win an election.

Neither party can only win with its base. Gingrich’s nosedive is a sign of the perils of only talking to the Tea Party choir.

Also note this: after South Carolina, some polls suggested that Republicans were beginning to feel Gingrich was more electable than Romney. Polls feed other polls. Now this poll indicates that not only would Gingrich lose in these states — but lose BIG, when Romney would actually beat Obama, if you don’t count the statistical tie.

UPDATE: The National Journal sees a silver lining for Gingrich in how things are trending in Florida:

– With polls showing Mitt Romney on track for a convincing victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary in this state, the one silver lining for Newt Gingrich may be the acceleration of a sorting-out process that is driving more prominent conservatives toward the former House speaker as a parade of establishment GOP leaders rally around Romney.

The most powerful dynamic in Florida over the past week has been the Romney campaign’s success at blunting the momentum from Gingrich’s South Carolina win by seeding a gardenful of personal and political doubts about him. But the sheer ferocity (and success) of that assault, delivered in many cases by pillars of the GOP establishment like former presidential nominees John McCain and Bob Dole, has prompted leading conservative figures like Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, and talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin to deepen their identification with Gingrich in response.

In that way, the Florida result could both re-establish Romney as the favorite to win the nomination — and potentially strengthen Gingrich’s ability to contest him as the calendar turns toward states with a more conservative Republican electorate than Florida. “It has become much more explicit that Romney is an establishment, status-quo-type candidate,” said long-term conservative activist Jeffrey Bell, policy director at the American Principles Project. “Conservatives are being driven toward Gingrich’s camp to keep the conversation going.”

The problem for the GOP would be that a Republican presidential candidate who is basically dissed and disdained by the Republican establishment and mainly favored by conservatives who advocate greater polarization and s smaller GOP tent, and by talk show hosts who polarize to deliver demographic pacakges to advertisers for a living would have little chance of winning a general election. We’ve run polls here before about the role of independents — and moderates. A Republican ticket that not only has little appeal to moderates but is dismissive of them will have a huge hurdle to win in November.

But National Journal is correct: if Romney wins Florida that does not mean he has won the nomination, no matter how many times that is stated by pundits. It isn’t over until it’s over — and it won’t be totally over after Florida.

Indeed, one analyst feels Gingrich is so angry at Romney and the establishment that he’ll fight to the bitter end to bring Romney down.

The Cagle cartoon above by Manny Francisco, Manila, The Phillippines, is licensed to run on TMV. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief
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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • ShannonLeee

    Pundits say Florida is the end game because they want us tuning in to watch the results.

    They’ll admit it isn’t over after Romney is declared the winner.

  • zephyr

    It appears half the electorate is clueless as ever. Disappointing (given the ample and obvious learning opportunities of the last two decades) but not surprising.

  • J Thomas

    So, there is a GOP candidate who is tied with Obama in 12 battleground states.

    But if it was clearly decided whether Obama or a GOP candidate was ahead in those states, they wouldn’t be battleground states.

    So this 12-state poll doesn’t tell much much at all about Obama.