Back in January, I wrote a post laying out what I thought was a decent framework for figuring out the Republican nomination. I argued that the action was all with Rubio, as the only candidate competing for the “entire” Republican Party, and that he had many plausible paths to victory. I thought he would pull it off.
I also (thankfully) hedged my bets at the end.
But all might be less likely than the alternative, which is that the more factional candidates perform better in Iowa and New Hampshire. For months, the smart position has been to ignore horse-race polls and to focus on fundamentals: favorability, fundraising, endorsements, presentation. But at some point the polls become the best indicator, and we’re getting there soon. And Rubio, for all of his advantages, has not yet begun appreciable movement upward; over the second half of 2015 he moved from single digits into the mid-teens with some consistently solid debate performances, but he’s still by no means a leader in any poll, anywhere.
If Rubio finished, say, fourth in Iowa and third in New Hampshire, while John Kasich or Jeb Bush ran very well in New Hampshire, we might be looking at a standard race, where the Iowa and New Hampshire candidates must do battle in South Carolina and beyond. Rubio might wind up on the outside looking in, his middle strategy being outflanked on both sides.
That scenario essentially played out: Rubio did what he needed to do in Iowa, finishing a close third, but collapsed in New Hampshire. So, it’s worth revisiting that post a bit. What have we learned?
1. It’s no fun being stuck in the middle.
Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) came up with a wonderful analogy for the Ted Cruz campaign: German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen’s eponymous war plan.
Confirms the view that Cruz is seeking a quick KO by March 2. Like the Schlieffen Plan, depends on right hook. https://t.co/DGx6OgjUfb
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) December 31, 2015
War offers great analogies for political campaigns in general; even the word campaign comes from wartime movement and operations. The logic of the Schlieffen Plan was for Germany to use its advantages in speed and organization to envelop the French Army and defeat it in one fell swoop, so that it could turn to Russia, which was seen as lumbering and slow but immensely powerful. The plan, of course, didn’t work: Schlieffen’s replacement, Helmuth von Moltke, weakened the main German Force, and the Germans ran into substantial resistance in Belgium. In the end, the German advance was halted at the Marne, and the war in the west became a stalemate in the trenches. To McLaughlin, Cruz was looking for a decisive early victory, relying on the “right hook” to do so. In the plan, the main German Force was to hug the coast as it got into France, forming a “right hook” of sorts against the French Army. (McLaughlin here is referencing the politics of using a groundswell of support from conservative voters to perform a similar function.)
Cruz managed to put himself on the brink of victory, though, even with his version of the Schlieffen Plan backfiring as Donald Trump stole his voters. Meanwhile, it seems that the Schlieffen Plan was really what Rubio, not Cruz, needed to mimic. Rubio was surrounded: to his Left (playing the role of France) were John Kasich and Chris Christie. To his right (playing the role of Russia) was Ted Cruz–and to an extent, Donald Trump (though Trump is not conventionally ideological in any real sense). What Rubio really needed to do was to win on his Left decisively and quickly (as Schlieffen insisted that Germany do against France) so that he could turn his attention fully to Cruz and Trump.
It of course did not work for Rubio: his poor debate performance in New Hampshire torpedoed his chances. First, it erased any momentum that he had built off of his strong Iowa showing. But perhaps more critically, it gave both John Kasich and Jeb Bush a rationale for continuing in the race. The New Hampshire loss was survivable, but the failure to eliminate the issue to his Left ultimately destroyed Rubio. The divided field resulted in Rubio bleeding potential votes to Kasich and Bush in South Carolina, and Kasich on Super Tuesday.
Like Rubio, Germany was probably the single strongest “contender” in Europe at the time, but it faced numerous difficulties–including attracting the attention of its neighbors as it built its strength. In the end, Germany was beaten, badly.
All of this is to say that Rubio’s “3-2-1 strategy” of coming in third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina could have worked, provided that his finish in New Hampshire was strong enough to clear out his Left. But he needed to run a flawless campaign, and he faltered at the worst time. New Hampshire was Rubio’s Marne, and Chris Christie was manning the proverbial French taxis.
2. The establishment still has the plurality of votes, sort of.
The below table is instructive.
|Romney/Huntsman 2012||Kasich/Bush/Rubio/Christie 2016|
|Iowa||25.1% (1st)||29.6% (1st)|
|New Hampshire||56.2% (1st)||44.6% (1st)|
|South Carolina||28.0% (2nd)||37.9% (1st)|
In two of the first three states, plausibly “establishment” candidates got a larger share of the vote in 2016 than in 2012. In all three states, a single, unified establishment candidate could have won the state. If Rubio had succeeded in knocking out Kasich, Christie, and Bush in New Hampshire, he may well have consolidated the three-way vote en route to a comfortable victory in South Carolina. Rubio winning South Carolina with 38 percent of the vote to Cruz’s 22 percent might have turned the race completely in his favor. Instead, South Carolina went to Trump.
This may well have been because Rubio was not a particularly conventional establishment choice: he was young and inexperienced, and probably more conservative than his establishment rivals.1 But the 2012 results–where the combination of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich got more votes than Mitt Romney in several primaries after New Hampshire–should have been a warning sign for the Republican “establishment”: it was facing danger in terms of getting its chosen nominee through, and would probably need to rally around a viable standard-bearer early on. Instead, it wasted months and millions on Jeb Bush and created a hopelessly-fractured lane. Meanwhile, the “Gingrich” candidate–the well-heeled unlikely vessel of populist rage–was Donald Trump, and the “Santorum” candidate–the social conservative–was Ted Cruz. 2016’s anti-establishment candidates were far stronger than the 2012 offerings, and the “establishment” utterly failed to consolidate.
3. Bet on the ground game.
The best postmortem of the Rubio campaign came from FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Observing that Rubio didn’t have much of a ground game, he wrote,
It’s not my job to judge the candidates’ credentials, but I sympathize with Republicans who think Rubio’s are a little light. As a first-term senator at a time of political gridlock, he hasn’t gotten much legislation passed: According to the Thomas database, the only bill to have become law of which Rubio was the main sponsor is the Girls Count Act of 2015. His most high-profile legislative effort, on immigration reform, ended in failure. Rubio did have some accomplishments as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, although he hasn’t talked about them much on the campaign trail. Perhaps that’s because Rubio is wary of drawing comparisons to Barack Obama, who, likewise, was a first-term U.S. senator and a former state legislator when he sought the presidency.
But Rubio didn’t replicate Obama’s success in one important way. Whereas Obama built a gigantic ground operation from the earliest stages of his campaign, Rubio failed to develop much of one. That contributes toward a low floor. If you’re not contacting voters personally, they aren’t all that invested in you, and although they may come your way from time to time, they also may abandon you at the first sign of trouble.
Rubio’s campaign emphasized using data to target free media. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz focused heavily on his ground operation. The results: Rubio had no natural supporters when times got tougher for him, but Cruz’s high floor protected him from a substantial bleed of votes after his disappointing showing in South Carolina. This isn’t to say that Rubio’s team didn’t pick the optimal strategy for their candidate’s strengths and ideological positioning, but it is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb might call a fragile strategy, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the campaign. A ground game, meanwhile, is more robust.
The writing was on the wall for months about Rubio’s minimal grassroots operation. I should’ve taken it more seriously, and I neglected its importance in exhorting Rubio to act and believing that Cruz was mostly finished after South Carolina.
4. The Republican process is irreparably flawed.
In the original post, I wrote about the advantage that Rubio had as the only remaining candidate running for the middle of the party. This seems like it should be true, and sort of feels like common sense. But really, it appears that I got this one 100 percent wrong. Running down the middle poses a challenge, as the candidate faces attacks from all sides. Moreover, early states Iowa and New Hampshire tend to reward factional candidates: Iowa is heavily Evangelical, and New Hampshire is a mix between Buchananite and moderate. Conventional “conservative” candidates can easily be outflanked on both sides, stuck in the middle and unable to expand out. And once again, the finalists are the winners of the first two states.
|Year||Iowa||New Hampshire||South Carolina||Nominee|
|1980||George H.W. Bush||Ronald Reagan||Ronald Reagan||Ronald Reagan|
|1988||Bob Dole||George H.W. Bush||George H.W. Bush||George H.W. Bush|
|1996||Bob Dole||Pat Buchanan||Bob Dole||Bob Dole|
|2000||George W. Bush||John McCain||George W. Bush||George W. Bush|
|2008||Mike Huckabee||John McCain||John McCain||John McCain|
|2012||Rick Santorum||Mitt Romney||Newt Gingrich||Mitt Romney|
|2016||Ted Cruz||Donald Trump||Donald Trump|
However, if the goal of the nomination process is to put forward a nominee that both represents the party’s values and stands a chance to win a general election, factional candidates are terrible choices: the most electable candidates who are likely to carry forward conservative policy platforms are the candidates in the middle of the party. And yet the program, as it currently exists, thwarts their aims.
Conservative reformers need to take this seriously, and need to think of solutions that will allow middle-of-the-party candidates like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio (or Tim Pawlenty, who faced a similar issue in 2012) to survive errors. A simple fix would be to institute something other than first-past-the-post voting. Donald Trump has been a massive beneficiary of first-past-the-post voting; he is the plurality delegate leader without winning a majority of the vote anywhere. Something like approval voting or instant-runoff voting would allow for broadly-acceptable candidates to fare better in the process, and would befit what a primary actually represents: a process in which parties try to distinguish between a series of options that most party voters like well enough to support in the general election.
As it is, the winnowing process left Republicans three choices, none of whom are broadly acceptable to the whole party. A better system would have produced better options.
Instead, the most likely outcome appears to be the selection of a factional candidate who completely outworked his opponents. There are worse outcomes, of course, and Ted Cruz certainly won’t leave any votes on the table. But the lessons of 2016, above all, suggest that the next cycle demands change.
Image by Gage Skidmore
- Considering that Rubio’s support was broadly-based and shallow, one suspects that Rubio’s supporters might have split between Cruz and an establishment alternative, rather than just the “establishment” finalist. So viewing all of these votes as “establishment” votes might overstate the total.