Marco Rubio’s crushing defeat Tuesday night in his home state of Florida not only smashed his presidential campaign, it also represented a revolt against the policy agenda of Republican elites and donors on which Rubio’s platform was modeled.
Donald Trump, winner of Florida’s 99 delegates, is likelier than ever to be the Republican nominee, and appears more in tune than Rubio with the party’s voters, many of whom crave a sharp change in direction. Rubio dropped out moments after the networks projected Trump as the winner, telling a room full of tearful supporters in his hometown of Miami that his campaign was overcome by “a tsunami” of voter anger.
In rejecting Rubio and a swath of establishment-backed Republicans before him, voters rejected policy ideas that have been popular among party leaders since Ronald Reagan was president, such as openness to immigration reform, free-trade deals, cuts to entitlement spending and a neoconservative foreign policy vision. Rubio, a young and charismatic politician from a Latino background, was seen by elites as the ideal vessel to re-brand those ideas for a young and diversifying America.
But voters instead chose the nationalistic agenda of Trump, which focuses on sealing the border with Mexico; slashing immigration levels and banning Muslims; rejecting free-trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; protecting Social Security; and putting forth a foreign policy that rejects nation-building abroad. It appears that vision of the future has taken hold with the base, but not party elites.
“There's a huge disconnect between the money in politics and the people going to the primaries to vote. And until that issue is resolved you’ll see millions of dollars continue to fall on consultants and lobby shops without much success,” said Jay Zeidman, a Houston-based Republican donor who backed Jeb Bush and is not giving to other candidates. “It’s an important lesson learned as we continue to realize how we got here and where we need to go next.”
Trump “is more in sympathy with where rank-and-file Republican voters are than any of the other candidates. This has been very much a donor-led party for a long time,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said in a recent interview on the podcast Primary Concerns. “The Republican rank and file are trying to signal that what they want is more secure health care, fewer wars and less immigration. And the party elite keeps saying, right, what you want is less secure health care, more wars and more immigration.”
“And the party base is signaling that ‘we are radically dissatisfied,’” Frum said.
For Republican donors, it is a grim moment that’s prompting reflection.
“There's a visceral hatred for politicians and for all things Washington,” Zeidman said. “Trump scares me,” he added. “Reagan really tried to be this bridge-builder and now we have more and more divisiveness. And that’s sad. We have such an anti-immigrant message now that we’re losing any chance we had to win the Latino population.”
As for a possible Trump nomination, “I don’t know what it does to the party,” he said, arguing that much of it depends on how the New York businessman’s message sells in congressional and statewide races. “I hope that it galvanizes the young Republicans, the millennial Republicans, so we’re not just the party of old white guys, and gets more people to engage.”
Tax cuts and business deregulation, the centerpiece of the GOP agenda since the 1980s, remain popular—Trump and Ted Cruz have both embraced them—but the dominance of the two insurgents indicates that other, populist proposals are gaining traction as defining elements of an evolving party.
“As the top-shelf policy proposal for Republicans, the idea [of tax cuts] has run its course,” said Mark Krikorian, an activist who focuses on reducing immigration to the U.S. “My point is not just that immigration is the new thing. Maybe it is or isn’t. But the old formula for Republicans is clearly not resonating with people.”
Despite his inspiring speeches about reviving the American dream for people struggling economically, key elements of Rubio’s policy platform seemed crafted to appeal to Republican elites and donors. He frequently touted the need for lower taxes and less regulation on the campaign trail. (Trump, too, has proposed to cut taxes dramatically, but it’s not a centerpiece of his campaign.) Rubio delivered multiple speeches about the need for the U.S. to play a more aggressive role in shaping world events, backed by military power. In a speech last May, he said it's “more important than ever” to ink the TPP and and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, arguing that they will “create millions of jobs” and enhance U.S. partnerships abroad.
“After 2008 and 2012, Republicans concluded that their philosophy and policies are perfect, they just need better candidates,” said Bruce Bartlett, a former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House who has become deeply critical of the GOP. “It is my hope that if the party loses badly enough in November then maybe party pragmatists can exercise some influence to moderate the party’s message.”
“The Republican establishment dilemma is very, very deep,” he said.
Trump’s campaign pounded Rubio and rivals as pawns of special interests. A recent TV ad in Florida by the billionaire told viewers Rubio “does favors for lobbyists.”
“We need a change. We need a very big change. We're going to make our country great again,” Trump said in a Feb. 13 Republican debate, echoing his campaign slogan. “We are going to start winning again. We are not going to be controlled by people that are special interests and lobbyists that everybody here has contributed to.”
Trump's message won over Florida Republicans who previously backed Rubio.
“Marco Rubio supports policies that are good for the donor class,” said Christopher Kallini, a graphic designer in Delray Beach, Florida. He voted for Rubio for Senate in 2010, but, before Tuesday's primary, said he planned to support Trump, citing the businessman’s opposition to higher immigration and free trade.
“A nation has to act in its own interests,” he said, lamenting, as many conservatives have, Rubio’s role in pushing immigration reform in 2013. Two in three Republicans prefer to reduce immigration, according to a Pew Research Center poll in September.
Break From Bush
Like Bush, Rubio also offered tax benefits for lower-income Americans in his proposal, but conservative and non-partisan analyses of his plan found that the wealthy would enjoy most of the gains. Rubio additionally proposed to eliminate all taxes on investments, a costly proposal to dramatically reduce the tax burden on the wealthiest, but one that would do little for ordinary Americans.
On foreign policy, Rubio embraced the Bush-era vision and enlisted many of the ex-president’s advisers who support toppling dictators to promote democracy in the Middle East. Rubio pushed for a no-fly zone over Syria, backed by the threat of military force, which Trump and Cruz oppose. Cruz also argued that keeping U.S.-friendly dictators in place is preferable to overthrowing them and risking more chaos in the aftermath. The Iraq war caused many to rethink interventionism for moral pursuits, including Trump and Cruz, who have called for using military power for narrow, nationalistic purposes. Surveys indicated Republican voters trusted them more than they trust Rubio to handle national security.
These disconnects between Republican politicians and the base have caused voters to flock to Trump, a political novice who admits he has exploited a broken system for personal gain but now insists he’ll fight against it.
‘Nobody’s Speaking for Me’
“I was everything against this man [Trump], and I’m completely for him now,” said Melinda Bobst of Palm Beach, Florida, after attending a Trump rally on Sunday in Boca Raton. “Nobody's speaking for me, and he’s not in the pockets of everybody else, whether it’s sugar, or whether it’s the oil. I know how hated he is by the establishment, so I know he's on his own.”
There’s a ready-made list of factors that help explain Rubio’s demise. He failed to focus on early states; his campaign organization was thin; he didn’t raise enough money; and he relied too heavily on free media, which was dominated by Trump.
But the policy lessons are stark, too. In retrospect, Rubio’s prospects were overrated by Republican operatives and many political analysts for the same reason they wrote off Trump. They underestimated the base’s antipathy toward an agenda party leaders have been committed to for decades—and toward the leaders themselves.
Distrust on the right of their own party leaders, whose trust Rubio worked hard to gain, has grown so intense it sometimes leads to conspiracy thinking.
“If we don't get this election right the elites, the globalists—they're going to enslave the people,” said Phil Whitaker of Hollywood, Florida.
Whitaker voted for Trump.