Featured Post

Most Roads Led to Rubio, but…

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.

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 2012Kasich/Bush/Rubio/Christie 2016
Iowa25.1% (1st)29.6% (1st)
New Hampshire56.2% (1st)44.6% (1st)
South Carolina28.0% (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.

YearIowaNew HampshireSouth CarolinaNominee
1980George H.W. BushRonald ReaganRonald ReaganRonald Reagan
1988Bob DoleGeorge H.W. BushGeorge H.W. BushGeorge H.W. Bush
1996Bob DolePat BuchananBob DoleBob Dole
2000George W. BushJohn McCainGeorge W. BushGeorge W. Bush
2008Mike HuckabeeJohn McCainJohn McCainJohn McCain
2012Rick SantorumMitt RomneyNewt GingrichMitt Romney
2016Ted CruzDonald TrumpDonald 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 Most Roads Led to Rubio, but...

  1. 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. []

Contributor
Twitter 

Dan Scotto lives and works in New Jersey. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

43 thoughts on “Most Roads Led to Rubio, but…

  1. It’s my understanding, from an NPR report this AM, with a Repub delegate that the delegates “won” in the various state / caucuses are free to vote their conscience from day one and not beholden to any candidate. This is not what has been said in the MSM.

    Does this changes things?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • It would change a lot, basically it would mean Cruz is going to get the nomination first round of voting but it’d probably provoke a riot among the base.

      Do you recall how the NPR justified their assertion? I mean the delegates are free to vote how they wish and no one’s going to break their kneecaps if they vote the way they’re supposed to but my understanding is that in the first round only the correct vote by a bound delegate will be recorded. So they can vote for King Kong if they want but the gorilla won’t be counted by the chair unless he won that states primary/caucus.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • NPR interviewed a delegate or some such, not sure what his title was, who was going to the Repub convention, and had gone for the last 20+ years. He said a bunch of stuff but that was the net net. He said they start out usually accepting the rules from the previous year and such, and that it’s written in the procedures or rules that “each delegate may vote their conscience” or some such wording, and it’s been like that since 1850 or so.

        A quick scan of NPR website give no joy. Google Fu failing….

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Well the delegate situation is complex and nuanced but when interviewing him from what you’re saying what he said could easily fit into the existing narrative. The basic rub is that the delegates collectively as pretty much all powerful within the convention. We’re talking about the literal congress of the Republican Party minus a constitutional restraint. Those delegates collectively control almost every legal/formal element that constitutes the Republican Party (and likewise the Democratic Delegates). They can technically change the Party rules to say whatever the fish they want.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • “They can technically change the Party rules to say whatever the fish they want.”

            Actually, he said that, but that wasn’t the point. His original point was that, historically, and written into all the previous rules, was that each delegate could vote his conscience. He’s saying that no one “owes” any vote to anyone at any time, and that’s always the way it’s been. That’s not been the reporting / narrative in the press, which has been that after the first vote, all parties were free to do what they wanted.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • This was a controversy in 1976 at the Republican convention. The leader of the House Republican caucus was in 1976 John Rhodes. His reaction to the Reagan effort to unbind delegates was, “Then why did we have all these goddamn primaries?”. The rule decided upon at that time was that pledged delegates were bound for the first ballot. A similar controversy erupted at the 1980 Democratic convention; Ted Kennedy’s supporters were walking around with these inane posters which had a robot on them labeled with the rule number (“FC-3” or something) and a prohibition slash across it.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  2. An excellent analysis. I would quibble only against your last few paragraphs. This is not the result of some critical flaw in the nomination structure/process. This was the result of conscious policy and political choices the GOP as a party has been making for quite some time combined with serious collective action problems by the unusually large number of center lane candidates.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. In section 2 of the OP, the presumption is that if there had been a single “Establishment” candidate instead of Kasich, Bush, Rubio, and Christie, all the votes for those four candidates would have consolidated and left the “Establishment” candidate in the catbird seat.

    Maybe. But I’m not so sure that’s true, especially if permitted hindsight. Two reasons.

    First, if the “Establishment” did have a mechanism for pre-Iowa consolidation, it’d have consolidated around Bush. Evidence for this is money: pre-Iowa, Bush had way more of it than any of these others. Bush, as we know with hindsight, was a weaker choice with actual voters than either Rubio or Kasich.

    Second, of these four “Establishment”-friendly choices, two were overtly running against the “Establishment,” including Rubio. Rubio’s initial appeal was to bridge the Tea Party and mainline conservative factions. Christie, meanwhile, was aiming populist and got pre-empted as the “teller of plain truths and maker of good bargains” by Trump.

    Rubio never enters and those voters go a little bit for Bush but mostly for Cruz. Christie never enters and those votes go to Trump. Kasich never enters, those votes (mattering pretty much in New Hampshire) go to Bush. Bush gets squeezed out after losing his home state to Trump. Say bye-bye to the “Establishment.” As in real life, in this hypothetical we’d today still be looking at a race of Trump versus a slightly stronger Cruz.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I think this is fair, but I also think this is a situation where the “establishment” needed to think in terms of “half a loaf” versus “no loaf” at all. If the establishment position was Bush > Rubio > Cruz > Trump, going for Bush was a strategy that risked total annihilation. Rubio was a safer pick in the sense that it could have forestalled a much worse outcome.

      Basically, the Bush loyalists should have known better, IMO. But I agree that the mechanism for consolidation may not have existed.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Dan,

        Is there any evidence of a singular establishment any more? From the other side of the aisle, what I see is the growth of a multi-polar party with each pole (a) having the money and voters to exercise real power and (b) hating the others. Trump obviously is his own locus of power. But isn’t it the case that Rubio had his own locus of money and supporters who really hated the Bush team? And isn’t the same story true for Cruz?

        Who among the major donors is taking any guidance from Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan?

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I think there is a lot of truth to this. I guess my point was that Rubio was an option that should have been palatable to Jeb Bush supporters while also picking off enough of the hard-line types that the Bush supporters should’ve defected to Rubio, strategically, much sooner.

          I think Citizens United, in its way, has made consolidation a lot harder.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • I think Citizens United, in its way, has made consolidation a lot harder.

            In 2008, you have four consequential candidates; the last of the remainder leaves the race 27 days after the Iowa caucuses. In 2012, you have four consequential candidates; the last of the remainder leaves the race 16 days after the Iowa Caucuses. In 2016, you have four consequential candidates; the last of the remainder leaves the race 32 days after the Iowa caucuses. This makes a difference?

              Quote  Link

            Report

  4. “The divided field resulted in Rubio bleeding potential votes to Kasich and Bush in South Carolina, and Kasich on Super Tuesday.”

    But Trump “bled” votes to Kasich too. We like to think that voters’s preferences align into neat and tody categories, i.e. that all the Kasich voters would pick a “mainstream” (which is hilarious given that everyone in the R race is right of right) candidate. But that isn’t how it works. Trump would pick up a lot of Kasich voters, too.

    Are their polls from the past showing anyone would’ve beat Trump head to head? Even if there were, Trump may have changed his focus if the field were narrowed and won anyway. So the hypothetical one on one matchup needs to be fair to Trump.

    R’s don’t like to admit it, but their party’s voters love Trump because he is racist, xenophobic, small-minded, a conspiracy theorist, and an unrealistic fantasist. That is the mainstream voter. The mainstream donor wants low taxes and no regulations like minimum wages or child-labor laws or something.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. I am with North and Burt. 2016 was in the making for years and decades because of GOP rhetoric and the rhetoric of conservative media especially talk radio. Burt is right that the GOP establishment could have just rallied behind Jeb! more effectively and quickly and turned the contest into Jeb v. Trump.

    But they did not. I think people took Trump as a non-threat for way too long. Even if Trump stayed in for the long haul.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • GOP establishment could have just rallied behind Jeb! more effectively and quickly and turned the contest into Jeb v. Trump.

      Rubbish. He had plenty of money and contacts. He also had public support prior to July 2015. It proved evanescent. About 2/3 of his observable support evaporated over the next five months, a fate also suffered by Mike Huckabee (but none of the other candidates bar Scott Walker on an earlier timetable). Nothing that MOAR donors and MOAR endorsements was going to remedy.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  6. Your mention of WW1 makes me think this has been a lot like WW2

    Trump (Germany) and Cruz (USSR) have early non-aggression pact.

    Jeb (France), big player with long powerful history and seemingly impenetrable fortress gets routed early and shockingly.

    GOPe (Allies) are on the ropes, but then Trump (Germany) launches a vicious and sudden attack on Cruz (USSR). GOPe (Allies), by circumstances, lend Cruz (USSR) the support needed to push back Trump (Germany).

    Trump (Germany) and Cruz (USSR) get into a drag down knock out brawl, that Trump (Germany) eventually loses, which grants Cruz (USSR) portions of Trump’s (Germany) former territory, and a preeminent position in the whole game.

    Then in the next iteration, GOPe (non-USSR allies) and Cruz (USSR) fight the battle that everyone thought coming even before Trump (Germany) starting blitzing the game.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. Rubio first, didn’t have a record with significant ‘markers’ of having done tangible things for the base-right (on moral alignments, economy, or push back on ‘sentiment’ law/policy creation).

    Second, I think there were optics, thinking the ‘right progressive’ was the next strong phase of the GOP, which the establishment GOP probably was expecting.

    My bet is the GOP will/has faction into three parts. The first being the authoritative conservatives (top faction). Next the ‘right progressives’, tucked un neatly between the old conservatives and the libertarians(middle faction). The third will be a mix of Libertarians and the right anti-authoritarians(lower faction).

    Right progressives(middle faction) at the moment are too close to where the establishment is camped. To go against the establishment means to move up or down from the middle.

    You don’t often see a strong anti-authoritarian in elections, so the field is littered with the mixed shades of authoritarians. For the party to be strongest while the middle faction is the weakest means the high faction and low faction has to start looking at things they agree on. This will be reflected in the alignment against the institutions and ‘sentiment’ laws/policies of the left, and maybe it’s current economic policies. Rubio wasn’t a strong contender to those alignments. Jeb and Kasich are the weak middle.

    I think a poor performing economy and the ‘sentiment’ laws/policies will affect how far the base is willing to polarize away from the middle.

    And for the record, If a strong authoritative right president produces considerable change and threatens institutions and implements its own ‘sentiment’ laws/policies, I see the left factioning in a mirror image of what the right is doing. Each party factioning away from the middle. I think it is already begun with Hillary being too close to the establishment middle faction, Bernie being low has been stronger than most would have guessed.

    The pendulum of ‘change’ swinging farther each time, or possibly receding if the economy and or sentiments start to align. The danger is for each side to double down on malicious authoritarians to skew the control institutions/policies in their favor. There is inherent risk when there is no sovereign individualist republic, representative factions continue to slosh around, grasping for control of the leviathan.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. You need an editor; three sentences might do: (1) Marco Rubio has been wrong on a non-negotiable issue; (2) He has a history of being deceptive and untrustworthy on that issue; (3) He’s mediocre in terms of his intellect and accomplishments.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • If it’s such a non-negotiable issue to the ‘base’, why did the George W. Bush, a big-time supporter of immigration reform walk out of office in 2008 with a 70+% approval rating from self described conservatives? I mean, conservatives realized all these immigrants were running around in the past couple of years.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • George W. Bush failed in his efforts to effect an amnesty.

        George W. Bush last ran de novo 16 years ago when the issue was simply less salient to Republican voters. Figures at the time of his departure would have been influenced by the success of the Iraq surge (though also influenced by the banking crisis). He also had the benefit of goodwill from the base for being fairly steadfast in his commitments and for aplomb in the face of venomous assaults from the opposition (in spite of being perhaps the least confrontational president in decades re domestic policy).

        People who contribute to fora like this do differ from Republican voters, but among those paying some attention, Rubio exposed himself in 2013 as a liar and a fool or a liar and a fraud. Rubio at his best in national surveys was not performing as well as Kasich is now. He carried one state and two territories (Puerto Rico and DC).

        If you look back at the situation pre-Trump, you can detect a good deal of resistance to the establishment lane candidates, even though Bush was leading in most surveys. F’rinstance, the Quinnipiac poll issued on 23 April 2015 had the sum of establishment lane candidates (Bush, Christie, Graham, Kasich, and Rubio) collecting 39% of the respondents between them. Post Trump, Bush lost about 2/3 of his support, Christie 1/3, and Graham evaporated.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  9. 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.

    Dum de dum de dum.

    Since Gen. Eisenhower headed off into retirement, the Republican Party has on the following occasions nominated:

    1. Opportunists (1960, 1968, 1988, 2012)

    2. Capitol hill fixtures (1996, 2008)

    3. “Factional candidates” (1964, 1980)

    4. A scion with a bunch of ideas which sound like marketing ploys (2000).

    5. Incumbents who were in the first instance opportunists (1972, 1992), Capitol Hill fixtures (1976), “Factional candidates” (1984), scion with marketing ploy (2004).

    Your only example of a ‘factional candidate’ getting shellacked would be Barry Goldwater in 1964. The thing is, Lyndon Johnson had 70%+ approval ratings in 1964, just like Gen. Eisenhower in 1956. Barry Goldwater received 38% of the vote. So, you nominate your least factional candidate (say, Henry Cabot Lodge, who didn’t want the job) and get 42% instead. This is of consequence?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  10. The actual problem with Rubio is that he wasn’t actually all that much of a moderate in the long run. On the actual issues, he didn’t actually have that much of a disconnect with say, Ted Cruz, except on immigration and even there, Cruz has been kind of a recent convert to the “depot ’em all” faction.

    Sure, Rubio would’ve gotten a 2000-esque love-in from the press, ala Dubya, especially against the hated Clinton’s, but the thing was, the 2000 version of George W. Bush actually was putting forth a moderate conservative platform – I didn’t agree with it, but I could at lease see how 50%+1 of American’s could support a plan.

    I simply don’t see that with Rubio, no matter how great his life story is or how good looking he is (using the political adjustment for good looking of course) would actually manage to win a general election, even against somebody like Hillary. The sad thing is, the GOP actually has an awesome candidate in the form of Brian Sandoval who put forth a lot of conservative items in Nevada while still appearing moderate (ala Dubya), but the problem for the GOP is that he’s pro-choice and this isn’t 1980 anymore, so you can’t have a sudden conversion like Poppy Bush did.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I simply don’t see that with Rubio, no matter how great his life story is or how good looking he is (using the political adjustment for good looking of course) would actually manage to win a general election, even against somebody like Hillary.

      All of the notable candidates perform satisfactorily against Hellary in hypothetical match-up polls, with the qualified exception of Trump.

        Quote  Link

      Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *