In the last few months, even as the Republican primary contest has veered towards the surreal with candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, all intensely loathed by the party establishment, hogging all the limelight and poll numbers, the media has generally coalesced around projecting Marco Rubio as the true front runner of the race.
The arguments behind a Marco Rubio win are simple. In the last few election cycles, candidates supported by the establishment have gone on to clinch the nomination. And with the fading of the prospects of Jeb Bush and other moderates like Chris Christie and John Kasich stuck in low single digits, the establishment does not appear to have any other viable option. It is also easy to support Marco Rubio. He is a young, fresh faced, first term Hispanic Republican Senator, representing the crucial swing state of Florida. He is believed to be pragmatic on immigration reform and being a Cuban-American with a fascinating Obamaseque background story, is expected to perform better among Hispanics, a crucial demographic in the general election, than Mitt Romney did in 2012. He is also only 44 years old and shall offer a striking youthful contrast to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic favourite, if he is nominated. On top of that, he is an excellent orator, a brilliant debater and has traditional tax-cutting, anti-abortion, hawkish on foreign affairs Republican policy positions which are largely palatable to the entire party, including the social conservatives, the Tea Party as well as the party establishment.
These strengths are reflected in the betting market where Rubio currently is given 43% chance of winning the nomination, more than the probabilities of the next two candidates (Ted Cruz and Donald Trump) combined.
The arguments behind a Marco Rubio candidature are in fact so persuasive that a lot of political commentators have wondered aloud why the Republican electorate does not just go ahead with anointing him and get done with it.
A closer look at Rubio’s prospects, however, reveals that the Florida senator still faces a number of challenges, significant ones even if not insurmountable ones, in his bid to win the Republican nomination.
The biggest challenge facing Marco Rubio today is that he is not leading or close to leading in any of the early state primary or caucuses. The Real Clear Politics’ average of the polling numbers in the three early states reveals as much.
In Iowa, where there is a significant percentage of born again evangelicals among the Republican primary voters, Trump, Cruz and Carson are the leading contenders in the polls. Rubio has not led any poll so far in the Hawkeye state. Although there is still room for a candidate to grow in the state (Rick Santorum, the 2012 winner, was polling in low single digits till a few weeks before the caucus), the high percentage of social conservatives make it a state more favourable for candidates like Cruz or Carson. The most plausible way for Rubio to win this state is by hoping the evangelical voters remain divided among a number of candidates while he manages to mop up most of the other votes. Although it is still a possibility, with Cruz performing increasingly well among evangelical and Tea Party supporters and Trump leading the moderate voters, it looks like an increasingly remote one.
New Hampshire in a normal presidential cycle could have been the state to give the Rubio candidature a fresh lease of life in case of a below par performance in Iowa. After all, this is the state that stood by Jon McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 respectively, after Iowa elected two social conservatives from the fringe right. However, this year, Donald Trump has held a strong lock on the Granite State, surging to lead there in July and holding it till now with often double digit margins. Currently, he is polling at around 29% which is almost equal to the vote share of the next three candidates combined (i.e. Rubio, Christie and Cruz).
Although Rubio is currently polling at the second position in New Hampshire, he is trailing Trump by around 17 percentage points. More importantly, even if Trump crashes spectacularly in New Hampshire, there is no guarantee that Rubio will benefit from the same. A number of strong candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich have made New Hampshire their last stand and are expected to pour every ounce of their energy and every dollar of their money into winning the state. Further, the New Hampshire primary is scheduled only seven days after the Iowa caucus. As a result, either of Trump, Carson or Cruz, if they end up winning Iowa, may be expected to carry forward significant momentum heading to New Hampshire.
South Carolina is a state similar to Iowa in terms of demographic makeup of the Republican primary electorate. The current standing in the polls reflects as much – Trump has a huge lead and is followed by Carson, Cruz and finally Rubio. Again a candidate doing well among social conservatives and Tea Party voters as well as a candidate who carries over momentum from the first two states shall have a significant advantage in the South Caroline Primary.
Thus, Rubio is struggling in all the early states. And early states do play a disproportionate role in the nomination process of the eventual candidate. No major party candidate in the modern primary system other than Bill Clinton in 1992 has been able to win the nomination after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire. And in 1992, Iowa was not a contested race (as Tom Harkin, the home state senator won comfortably there) while New Hampshire was won by Paul Tsongas, a senator from the neighbouring state of Massachusetts. Bill Clinton finished second in New Hampshire and was able to frame his victory as a come from behind story, over performing relative to expectations and was thus able to carry forward the momentum in the next contests.
In order to understand the importance of these early states, look no further than the campaign of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who was leading in the national polls in late December, 2007 but was trailing in Iowa and New Hampshire. In a grievous mistake, he decided to ignore these early states and instead focus on the delegate rich large states of Florida, New York, New Jersey, California, etc. which were slated to vote later. However, by the time the votes in Florida, the first of such states, were scheduled, the media, news cycle and voters had moved on from Giuliani and he finished a poor third in the state. He soon had to drop out.
A closer look at the calendar further underscores the difficulties for Marco Rubio. Unlike other years, Florida, his home state, does not come fourth in the primary calendar; in fact, it does not vote till March 15th. Most of the deep red states of the South and West (states where Rick Santorum performed well in 2012) have their votes scheduled early together, whereas the states of East and West Coast where an establishment backed candidate may perform better are only scheduled to vote in April and May. So if a candidate like Ted Cruz or Ben Carson manages to win both Iowa and South Carolina, he will have significant momentum heading into the first Super Tuesday where a favourable map will help him win a handful of delegate rich states and open up a significant lead over his nearest rival.
Given this unfavourable map, it is almost imperative for Rubio to come up with a decent showing in the first 2-3 voting states. However, his strategy in the early states has been puzzling. The customary wisdom goes that in order to succeed in a state like Iowa or New Hampshire, you need to spend a significant amount of time in retail politicking, meeting with voters and build a sophisticated ground game which is able to bring out your dedicated voters on the election day. Rubio’s team, however, does not ascribe to this philosophy. Compared to a number of candidates who have selected Iowa or New Hampshire as the state favourable to them and have bunkered down there, Rubio has had limited personal meetings in either of these states. His campaign infrastructure in these states is also very limited, much poorer than that of a number of other candidates who are doing worse than him. He has instead almost exclusively relied on television advertisement campaigns for reaching out to these voters. Local newspapers, strategists and political leaders of Iowa and New Hampshire have bemoaned this lack of presence of Rubio, citing it as one of the reasons why he is not surging in the polls there. Chris Christie, for example, has gradually been able to show some improvement in his numbers after campaigning hard in New Hampshire in the last few months.
It is to be noted that Rubio is still in a position to win both the states. His favourability number is among the best. When being asked the names of candidates the Republican voters would never consider voting, Rubio’s name appears towards the bottom of such list. Thus he still has a lot of space to grow, which makes his decision to contest lightly in these states all the more baffling.
To be fair to him, this might be a part of the strategy of Rubio’s team to keep expectations down in these two states. After all, the performance of a candidate relative to the expectation matters a lot. However, at some point, the campaign shall need to decide between choosing to keep expectations down and performing well in these states. After all, no matter how low the expectations are, if Rubio does not manage to finish among the top two in either Iowa or New Hampshire, it will be difficult for him to make a comeback later on.
At the beginning of this year, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio were considered the three strongest candidates in the Republican nomination race, the only three candidates who were in a position to appeal to different factions of the party and cobble together a winning alliance. Scott Walker has since dropped out of the race and Jeb Bush has seen his numbers fade everywhere. It is thus a mystery why the establishment has not yet fallen behind Marco Rubio who still continues to lag behind Jeb Bush in the Fivethirtyeight Endorsement count with a giant majority of party congressmen, senators and governors yet to make their mind up.
One possible justification is that Rubio is actually a weaker candidate than he is made out to be and the party insiders have access to information that the media does not have. The other more plausible justification is that the party representatives are hedging their bets and are willing out to sit out till they find out how the voters in the early states react. If the second scenario is true, it makes it more important for Rubio to perform creditably in Iowa and New Hampshire and shut out the likes of Bush, Christie and Kasich, his competitors for the establishment support, from the race.
Despite being a well rounded candidate and performing well in debates, the poll numbers of Rubio have not moved up a lot in the last few months, unlike say for a candidate like Cruz. This calls into question the primary base of Rubio. While Cruz and Carson have fought hard for the evangelical and Tea Party votes (a fight Cruz seems to be winning), Trump has led among the moderates and less conservatives, particularly among less educated whites. Rubio does not seem to have any natural base of his own and is not doing particularly well among any section of Republican voters. This is in spite of having great favourability numbers across the spectrum.
There is also the case of confused messaging. When judged on his policy positions, Rubio is extremely conservative on almost all major policy positions. The only blemish in his stellar conservative record was supporting the bi-partisan immigration reform in the Senate, a position he has since walked away from. In the Republican Primary for the Florida Senate race in 2010, he was the Tea party candidate against Charlie Christ, the establishment favourite. He is one of the most hawkish in the field as far as foreign policy is concerned. In other words, in previous cycles, he could have run as one of the most conservative candidates in the field. However, in this year, the peculiarities of the race have actually made him running as an establishment candidate, rather than as a conservative insurgent, the only viable way to win the nomination.
This seems to be resulting in muddled strategy on the part of the Rubio campaign. While almost every other campaign has decided on which demographics to target and which states to focus on, the Rubio campaign seems to be appealing to everyone at once. The danger with this strategy is that he may end up as the second choice of everyone but not as the first choice of anyone.
The Electability Question
Electability in general election is one of the strongest suites of the Marco Rubio candidacy, After all, as a young conservative, a Hispanic and a freshman senator with a message about the future, he compares much favourably to Clinton who at 68 years of age, has been part of the Government and a subject of the national media for decades now. In fact, the media regularly considers Rubio as the strongest general election candidate among the 14 or so candidates running for the Republican party nomination.
The Republican primary voters, however, do not agree with this assessment. In poll after poll, Donald Trump is considered the strongest general election candidate, often crushing his opposition by huge margins. Even in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, voters who are supposed to be paying more attention to the race, consistently rank Trump as a more electable candidate than others in the field. If Rubio has not been able to convince the voters about what is supposed to be his USP in the race, it calls into question his skills as a candidate and the effectiveness of his campaign.
Till date, three candidates have dropped out in the Republican side of the race. They are Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal. All three candidates have something in common. They were appealing to the social conservative faction of the party, while at the same time projecting themselves as fiscally conservative executives with a strong track record of governance of their respective states. Apart from the fact that Rubio is a senator and not a governor, there is a lot of similarity between the ideology and positioning of these three candidates and Rubio.
In a way, it is a good thing for Rubio that these candidates have dropped out. It has eliminated competition and freed up previous votes for him. However, the failure of such candidates also demonstrates the difficulty of appealing to different factions of the party at once. Rubio is admittedly a much better candidate than any of these three; however, his lack of strong support among any particular voting block or state underscores the inherent risk in this strategy.
One way of knowing how much fervour a campaign is generating at the ground level is to look at the contributions of small scale donors to the campaign. Successful volunteer driven campaigns like those of Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in this presidential cycle have pre-dominantly relied on small scale donors for raising their funds. In this year’s Republican field, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have been the candidates who have been successful among grass-root donors with around 41 percent of contribution for Cruz and 62 percent of contribution for Carson coming from donors giving $200 or less. In comparison, the corresponding figure for Rubio was only 22 percent. The overall amount of money raised by Rubio was also not very high at only USD 5.7 Million in the third quarter of 2015, a number much less than that raised by Bush, Carson or Cruz. The fund-raising numbers of Rubio will definitely improve in the coming quarters, with a number of wealthy billionaires expected to fall in line behind him. However, for a candidate who is often compared to Obama, the low percentage of small donors signals the tepid support for the candidate at the ground level.
The point of this article is, of course, not to deny the strong probability of a Marco Rubio victory. On paper, he is still the most plausible Republican candidate to win the nomination. There is though a lot of difference between a candidate’s strength on paper and his ability to translate them into votes. Plenty of candidates in this year’s election cycle as well as before have struggled to transform this potential into success at the ballot box. And as the discussion above shows, Rubio needs to address a number of issues before he comes close to winning the nomination. It may not be an impossible task, but it shall not be an easy one either.