According to the latest Realclearpolitics average of polls, Marco Rubio is trailing Donald Trump in the Republican Primary to be held in Florida on 15th March by around 17 percentage points. In some of the latest polls, even Ted Cruz is polling within the margin of error of Marco Rubio and has a decent chance of actually finishing ahead of him on the Election Day. This means that the sitting junior senator of Florida and the favoured candidate of the Republican establishment may end up finishing third in his home state, a humiliating loss that would put immense pressure on him to drop out of the race.
This has been a stunning turnaround of fortune for the candidate who just two weeks back was being considered the best hope of the establishment to stop Trump and Cruz on their tracks.
Let us rewind back to 24th February, 2016. Rubio was clearly the ‘momentum’ candidate of the campaign. He had delivered a strong come from behind performance in Iowa to finish third, just falling a hair short of overtaking Trump. He stumbled badly in a debate in the run up to the New Hampshire election, but showed remarkable resilience to finish ahead of Cruz in both South Carolina and Nevada, two states which should have been favourable terrain for the junior senator from Texas. In fact, Cruz’s lead in Texas, his home state, was looking increasingly tenuous and a defeat there would have made it impossible to justify his continued presence in the race. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, the two other establishment friendly candidates had already dropped out. John Kasich and Ben Carson, the other remaining candidates in the race, increasingly looked like becoming footnotes in a two person race. And the Republican establishment, after months of dithering had finally, unequivocally decided to fall back behind Rubio in a last ditch, desperate effort to stop Trump.
Theoretically, there were a lot of positives for the Republican establishment if the race could be reduced to a two man contest between Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. For one, Rubio had healthy favourability ratings and was broadly acceptable to all sections of the Party. Trump, on the other hand, was a polarizing candidate, popular only among a narrow section of the Republican electorate but was anathema to the rest of the voters. Trump consistently performed poorly among voters who decided late, but because of a divided field was able to coast to victory in three of the four early voting states. Further, the calendar would have gradually turned more hospitable for an establishment backed candidate and Rubio could have been expected to do well in the large delegate rich states of the coastal region as well as West and Mid West. Some polls, in fact, showed Rubio with an advantage in the case of a direct contest with Trump.
Then came the debate at Houston held on 25th February, where Rubio finally came swinging hard at Donald Trump, hitting him for his past employment of unauthorized immigrants, his simplistic grasp on policy measures, the controversy over Trump University and his inability to come up with any coherent idea to replace Obamacare. Trump tried to get his way out of trouble by mocking his opponent, as usual, but Rubio was quick on his feet, returning fire with fire, and finally managing to dispel the idea that he was a candidate unable to speak beyond his stump speech.
The media was quick to latch on to the theory that Rubio had done exceedingly well in the debate and the race had been reduced to a one-on-one contest between Trump and Rubio. Here is what Chris Cilliza of the Washington Post had to write about the debate:
This was not only Rubio’s best debate performance, it was the best debate performance by any candidate in any debate so far in the 2016 election. Rubio, grasping the fact that if nothing changes in this race he — and everyone else — will lose to Donald Trump, hit Trump at every turn. He savaged Trump on using illegal immigrants to help build Trump Tower. He went after Trump for inheriting money. He hit Trump for his position on Israel and Palestine. And, most importantly, he rattled Trump during a back-and-forth over Obamacare.
What Rubio’s stellar performance means is that the race between now and Tuesday — and March 15 and beyond — will be cast as a two-man showdown between Trump and Rubio. That’s the only chance Rubio has of winning. What I don’t know is whether the punches Rubio landed will do any lasting damage to Trump. Nothing else has — yet.
MJ Lee, the CNN Politics reporter was equally gushy:
Marco Rubio was on fire Thursday night.
For months, the Florida senator resisted taking on Republican front-runner and expert attack dog Donald Trump, much to the chagrin of the GOP establishment. That reluctance evaporated during the final GOP presidential debate before Super Tuesday.
Standing to the right of Trump, Rubio delivered one blow after another at the billionaire businessman, attacking him on everything from immigration to foreign policy and health care to the businessman’s hiring practices. And to Trump’s left, Ted Cruz delighted in joining in the pile-on.
David.A.Graham of the Atlantic had to say the following:
It (Rubio’s attack on Trump) was an incredible barrage. Only Jeb Bush had tried anything like it, and Trump easily talked over him. Unlike Bush, Rubio kept hammering, interrupting Trump and getting under his skin. And unlike Bush, who seemed deeply unhappy attacking, Rubio seemed to be having a blast slashing Trump. It all raised a rather uncomfortable question: What if Rubio had gone after Trump earlier, before Trump became the clear front-runner with Super Tuesday just days away?
That, however, proved to be the high point of Rubio’s campaign. In a brief time period of two weeks, he went down from being everybody’s darling to the latest candidate to crash and burn while taking on Trump’s candidacy. Here is a brief timeline of the epic fall of the candidate, once touted as the ‘Republican Obama’:
- On 26th February, a day after the Houston debate, Donald Trump received the endorsement of Chris Christie. Christie was no insurgent fringe leader, but an embodiment of the Republican mainstream. He had after all served as a two term Governor of a deep blue state, the Chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, had delivered a keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention and was even vetted for the role of Vice President by Mitt Romney in 2012. It was a shocking news that completely dominated the media coverage of the campaigns, thus turning an unfavourable news cycle in the favour of Trump, a feat that again showed the mastery of Trump in manipulating the media.
- Rubio started increasingly resorting to personal attacks on Trump. In his rallies, he started mocking Trump for the size of his hands (an allusion to his manhood) and the spelling mistakes Trump makes in his tweets. As it always happens with Trump, he retaliated forcefully, repeatedly addressing Rubio as ‘little Marco’ and calling him a ‘lightweight’. (in fact, this is part of a trend where Trump keeps disparaging his opponents using simple, easy to remember phrases – ‘low energy’ for Jeb Bush, ‘lying and dishonest’ for Ted Cruz, ‘choker and loser’ for Mitt Romney, ‘communist’ for Bernie Sanders – and keeps repeating them until these labels start sticking with his targets).
- In the Super Tuesday Primary held on 01st March, 2016, Rubio had a bad night. He just finished short of the delegates threshold in three states (Alabama, Texas and Vermont), all by margin of less than 3%. Out of the eleven states that voted on Super Tuesday, Rubio finished third in as many as eight states, squeezed by Ted Cruz in the southern states and John Kasich in the north-eastern states. Early in the night, he looked a modest favourite to win the primary at Virginia, leading in the DC suburbs, but fell behind Trump as the results from the remaining counties came in. His only win of the night came at Minnesota caucus, declared well after prime time coverage had died down. By the end of the night, it was clear that Rubio will find it almost impossible to win the nomination without a contested convention.
- In the Republican debate held on 03rd March, 2016, Rubio delivered a widely panned performance. He continued to attack Trump, but the debate very often descended into the surreal, with repeated name calling and ad hominem attacks, with little in the way of substantive arguments. In contrast, Ted Cruz continued to attack Trump on specific policy measures, refusing to get into dirty personal attacks while John Kasich continued to radiate his positive message about hope and optimism. The same media outlets and publications which were delighted by Rubio’s performance in the debate held one week back were now horrified at the level of discourse – in fact, a number of them held Rubio responsible for getting into the mud pit with Trump and engaging in a pointless trading of insults.
- The Republican Party held elections in four states on 05th March, 2016. Rubio’s performance was pathetic – he finished third in three states (Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana) and fourth in the other (Maine). He missed out on delegate threshold in two states, including in Maine by just 2%. More worryingly for him, his support seemed to have collapsed since the last debate. In Louisiana which allowed early voting, Rubio won around 20% of the early votes and just 9% of the Election Day votes.
- Before the second Super Tuesday held on 08th March, it was more or less clear that Rubio was fast losing momentum. He had ceded the anti-Trump space to John Kasich in North-East and Mid West and to Cruz to pretty much everywhere else. Further, increasing number of polls started coming out in Florida, which showed Rubio trailing Trump in his home state. The only piece of good news in the entire week was Rubio succeeding to win Puerto Rico, winning all the 23 delegates on offer in the process.
- The votes held on 08th March were a disaster for Rubio. Not only did he not come anywhere close to winning in the four states, he did not win in a single delegate in Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho. His only delegate win was in Hawaii, the only state out of the four that did not have a delegate threshold. Also there were increasing signs that Trump had polarized the Republican voters and anti-Trump voters were increasingly taking recourse to tactical voting, preferring the strongest anti-Trump candidate in each state. Rubio with no natural geographic or ideological base lost out in such a scenario.
- Rubio performed creditably in the debate held on 10th March, 2016 but the polls in Florida continued to show him losing ground to Trump and increasing vote share of Cruz. On 11th March, almost out of desperation, Rubio’s campaign conceded Ohio, asking his supporters to vote for Kasich in the Buckeye State. But in a major humiliation for Rubio, Kasich’s campaign refused to return the favour for Rubio in Florida. The move appeared calculated; after all, in a number of polls, Kasich is now leading Trump in Ohio even as Rubio continues to falter in Florida. In the increasingly likely scenario that Kasich wins Ohio and Rubio loses Florida, Kasich will more or less become the defacto anti-Trump establishment candidate.
It is true that a number of difficulties with the Rubio candidacy were apparent from last year. He had no natural base or grass root support unlike Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or even Ben Carson. He was after all a candidate with a muddled message; he was an extremely conservative senator and a former Tea Party hero who was running in this cycle as the establishment backed candidate. The map looked unfavourable to him and he failed to register a single eye-catching victory in one of the states voting early in the calendar. The establishment looked reluctant in supporting Rubio for a long time and started falling in line only after Christie and Bush exited the race.
But still, the speed with which Rubio descended from being one of the favoured candidates to being an also ran in stunning. If Rubio manages to win Florida despite all odds, he would almost end up achieving the impossible, his campaign may recover and he may have a strong hand to play in a contested convention. But in the more likely scenario that he loses Florida, this would be steep descent to ignominy for the young, promising senator who was once considered the leading candidate in the race.