This is the second article in a five-part series on the 2016 GOP nomination.
Marco Rubio took a risk in 2015: he ran. He ran, presumably knowing that Jeb Bush had targeted 2016 literally a decade prior, and that Jeb would have one shot. He ran cognizant that Jeb would loathe him for running, and that Jeb had the party establishment in his back pocket. But Jeb didn’t connect, and Rubio did (to an extent), building a broad-but-shallow coalition that made him competitive everywhere, but dominant nowhere. Rubio was perfectly positioned to pick up the scraps from any failed candidacy.
But not enough candidacies failed, or recognized that they had failed. So the crowded field kept Rubio hovering in the low teens, consistently. With a couple of exceptions, Rubio opted to avoid direct confrontation with the poll leader. We could call this “learning the lesson of Rick Perry,” who attacked Trump vociferously and got no benefit for doing so. But attacks might have worked out better if carried by the polished, telegenic Rubio, rather than the damaged Perry.
As the campaign unfolded, it became clear that Rubio’s strategy of being “above the fray” was paying dividends. A late surge into a strong third in Iowa–and a memorable early “victory” speech–put Rubio in a position to compete in New Hampshire. A strong second in New Hampshire could have propelled Rubio to the nomination via a win in South Carolina. Rubio instead had his worst moment of the campaign.
Rubio, of course, could have slammed the door in Chris Christie’s face with an ad-libbed answer about the number of canned lines and repeated themes that Christie used (did you know that Chris Christie was a federal prosecutor?), but instead, he tried to “take the high road” and avoid attacking Christie. In other contexts, Rubio proved that he’s actually pretty good on his feet, but in the New Hampshire debate, he slavishly adhered to an overly-cautious strategy that utterly destroyed him.
(Here, it is important not to blame Christie; his attacks should have been anticipated and should have been parried.)
A stronger performance at that debate might have meant a vastly different outcome. Here, it is worth looking over some polling data to prove this point: On January 31, 2016: Rubio was holding steady at 9.5 percent in New Hampshire. The next day, he finished a strong third in Iowa and delivered a well-received nationally-televised address in prime-time.
The debate was February 6. In 15 polls that were in the field from February 2 to February 6, Rubio averaged a 15.6% voting share. But in the election, Rubio only pulled in 10.5 percent. The split is pronounced:
|Poll Average, 2/2-2/6||Actual Result, 2/9||Difference|
Kasich, Bush, and Christie all outperformed their poll numbers from prior to the debate. Rubio plummeted. At the risk of post hoc ergo propter hoc, it seems that the debate had a substantial impact. If Rubio had defeated John Kasich and Jeb Bush in New Hampshire, both would have likely dropped out, and Rubio had a very strong chance at South Carolina. (The problem for the GOP was that the “establishment vote” was split about as sub-optimally as possible, with none of Kasich, Rubio, Bush, or Christie topping 17 percent.)
A South Carolina victory for Rubio would have changed the entire race, and, indeed, was possible: Rubio, Kasich, and Bush combined for 37.9 percent in South Carolina, a full 5 points ahead of Trump. A Rubio win in South Carolina could have flipped the script, could have allowed Rubio to pull in some of the bandwagon voters that ended up with Trump.
In reality, it became clear that Rubio was politically dead all along; his second place finish in South Carolina was impressive, but still came in 10 points behind Trump.
Rubio scuffled through late February and early March, coming up just short of a couple of delegate thresholds in southern states (particularly Texas), and putting on a hard charge in Virginia but losing by 30,000 votes. A Rubio victory in Virginia might have changed things; the media, after all, is centered in Virginia and Maryland, and the press coverage of a Trump “collapse” there would have been compelling. But it didn’t happen. Rubio got his first win well after everyone back east went to bed: in a little-attended caucus in Minnesota.
In the subsequent week, it became clear that Rubio was flailing; Florida polling data was relentlessly negative (though a positive poll result surrounding early votes kept the faith alive). Conservatives across the spectrum suggested an anti-Trump Cruz/Rubio unity ticket: the two could debut it at a debate prior to the Florida primary with a sort of grand vote-swap, and then roll to the nomination (in theory). Such a vote-swap would have been far-fetched and unprecedented, but it would have dominated all coverage of the debate. Unfortunately, Rubio was uninterested and subsequently got crushed in his home state, losing every county other than Miami-Dade.
Following Florida, Rubio continued to resist doing the right thing. Instead of jumping at the chance to join Ted Cruz in a valiant charge across the country against Trump as his running mate, Rubio sat it out. Cruz’s team insisted that a Cruz/Rubio ticket polled strongly.Truthfully, such a campaign would have been hard-pressed to beat Trump. But it was worth the effort.
So therefore, Rubio had essentially two shots to make a difference: he could have handled the New Hampshire debate better, and he could have nobly stepped aside in favor of a Cruz/Rubio unity ticket. He chose neither option.
In the end, Rubio probably had the least ability to affect the race against Trump, outside of his disastrous error in New Hampshire. But if Rubio had slammed the door on Christie, Trump may well have been a political curio; an embarrassing footnote we remember when laughing about Rubio’s 2016 landslide victory and full Republican control of the government.
Image by Gage Skidmore