Following a second-place finish in the Nevada caucuses that many thought established him as the leading alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has seen his campaign stumble badly, winning only two contests (Minnesota and Puerto Rico) while coming in behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in most of the primaries and caucuses since and even coming in behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich in several states. Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, data guru Nate Silver diagnoses a key shortcoming of the Rubio campaign that may explain why his campaign has fared so poorly in recent weeks:
Except in the improbable event that he comes back to win the Republican nomination, Marco Rubio is likely to become a political idiom. As Mike Huckabee is synonymous with a candidate who wins Iowa on the basis of evangelical support but can’t expand beyond that, or Fred Thompson is a stand-in for a candidate who launches his campaign too late, a “Rubioesque” candidate will be one who is everyone’s second choice.
For a long time, polls have shown Rubio as perhaps the most broadly acceptable candidate within the Republican field, with high favorability ratings and competitive performances in hypothetical one-on-one matchups against Donald Trump. But Rubio has just about 20 percent of the Republican vote so far and has won only Minnesota and Puerto Rico…
Silver suggests Rubio faced three main problems in his quest for the Republican nomination. The first is simple enough – he didn’t build up much loyalty among voters by passing key legislative priorities of the Republican base, regularly meeting and connecting with voters, and limited media exposure due to Trump’s rise. The other two problems are more about candidate positioning:
You may remember our old friend the Republican “five-ring circus” diagram, which depicts the overlapping constituencies that the Republican candidates seek to win votes from. From the start, we’ve put Rubio in the “establishment” circle, thinking he’s too far removed from his days as a tea-party-backed candidate to still qualify as one.
The establishment circle is a special place, however…. [T]he more successful establishment candidates seek to be consensus candidates, keeping the peace with some or all party factions. Consider Mitt Romney, who was elected governor in Massachusetts as a pragmatic moderate, then ran as a movement conservative in the Republican race of 2008 and then was somewhere in between those things when he was nominated in 2012….
Such candidates can be accused of shape-shifting or flip-flopping, but they often capture their party’s nomination. Such a strategy requires a lot of political dexterity, however. Not only do you have to stay “on message,” you have to sustain multiple messages to multiple audiences…. It helps to have surrogates vouching for you to different constituencies, something Rubio didn’t have a lot of until recently.
Rubio’s final problem, according to Silver, is that his conservative positions combined with a “cosmopolitan” appeal seem to work best with a fairly narrow slice of the electorate. After noting that Rubio’s best-performing Congressional districts were in suburbs with large numbers of Democrats, he observes:
Rubio… may be proving that there’s not all that large a market for what you might call an upscale or cosmopolitan conservative. Many voters in the near-in suburbs, Rubio’s best areas geographically, long ago left the Republican Party. Rubio might have the image to win them back — young, Hispanic, optimistic — but he doesn’t have the policies, being staunchly conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Likewise, while Rubio appears to do well among nonwhite Republicans, there are very few of them voting in the primaries, and Rubio has turned away from the moderate immigration positions that once might have won him more Latino support.
Rubio is also somewhat boxed in by Cruz and, to a perhaps underappreciated extent, Kasich. If Cruz weren’t in the race… Rubio might win it: He could position himself as the only true conservative in the race, and polls suggest that more Cruz supporters have Rubio as their second choice than Trump. If Kasich were out of the race, meanwhile, Rubio could pivot more toward the center — at an opportune time, given that the calendar is turning to blue and purple states. But with Cruz and Kasich still running — and in fact, seeming to gain ground in recent days — Rubio is back to where he started, as a lot of voters’ second choice.
As a result of continuing to be the second choice of many voters further into the campaign than desired, Rubio faces a critical test next week in his home state. ABC News analyzed the four remaining GOP candidates and what they need to do to win the nomination, with the following written about Rubio:
The Florida senator faces a virtually impossible climb to the nomination outright, even with his home state of Florida in his pocket. Even assuming he wins Florida, he will need three-quarters (75 percent) of the remaining delegates to win the nomination -– a very unlikely task with Donald Trump just holding steady with his current 35 to 40 percent support in states that are not winner-take-all. And if Trump defeats him in Florida, Rubio would need to take home five out of every six remaining delegates (83 percent).
Winning Florida is an uphill climb for Rubio at this point, as Byron York explained this morning in The Washington Examiner:
When a campaign is in trouble, it's tempting to view everything that happens in the context of a troubled campaign. So when, on the eve of the Republican debate, Marco Rubio returned to his home turf of Hialeah — the Cuban-American community where he first won political office as a West Miami commissioner — there was more than enough troubled-campaign context to go around.
Rubio advertised the event as a "Hialeah Rally With Marco," to be held at 5 p.m. at Milander Stadium. The football and soccer field has bleachers that seat more than 5,000 people, but the Rubio campaign fenced off a tiny portion, one end zone out to about the 10-yard line, for the event. There was a small stage and folding chairs for perhaps 200-300 people, plus a press area. All of which gave Rubio, already facing reports of dwindling crowds and sagging enthusiasm, the bad optics of staging a small event in a very big venue….
What was indisputably bad was the amount of time Rubio had to spend denying that he plans to drop out of the race….
The last half-dozen polls in the RealClearPolitics average of polls have Rubio trailing Trump by 19 points, 19 points, 9 points, 23 points, 20 points, and 23 points — all taken in the last week.
A loss in Florida would likely be the end of his presidential campaign, but after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders overcome a 20-point deficit in the polls to win Michigan last week it’s probably too early to be writing Rubio off entirely. And unlike Sanders, Rubio has the advantage of fighting on his home turf.
Rubio’s strategy of being everybody’s second choice worked well for him in the early phases of the nomination fight, but for a variety of reasons not enough of those who made him their second choice have converted to making him their first choice. If he can’t become the first choice in his home state next week, it’s likely to be his last week in the nomination fight.