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Why Rubio Is Fleeing the Establishment

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Reporters are noticing an ungentle turn in Senator Marco Rubio's presidential campaign.

"Marco Rubio, once sunny, turns dark to try matching the GOP mood," reads a Washington Post headline this week. Bloomberg Politics said: "The Florida senator's tone has darkened as he chases rivals Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for his party's nomination." Peter Beinart's Atlantic column this week is headlined: "Rubio Turns Hard Right."

It was widely assumed that the GOP presidential race would be fought like a sports playoff -- with one set of candidates competing to win the establishment conference, and another competing to win the anti-establishment conference. The two playoff winners would then compete for the championship -- the party's nomination.

From the start of the campaign, Rubio engaged in a political straddle, maintaining two viable paths to the nomination: the power path of the GOP corporate "establishment," and the angry, insurgent Tea Party path that he had traveled to reach the Senate in 2010.

Rubio hasn't abandoned the establishment route. A super-PAC promoting his candidacy is attacking New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in New Hampshire. But if the playoff premise holds, it's a curious time to be turning right. Rubio's chief establishment rival, Jeb Bush, is getting nowhere with the Republican electorate. Another struggling mainstreamer, Ohio Governor John Kasich, has done everything but renounce his party as a nuthouse. Christie is rising in New Hampshire but has no viable path through the thicket of Southern primaries that await -- presuming his party's Northerners are eager to support a candidate with a record including nine state credit downgrades and an ugly, still unfolding scandal.

Given such competitive advantages, why is Rubio investing in the hyper-competitive lane where Ted Cruz and Donald Trump seem destined to duke it out?

Perhaps Rubio has concluded that an establishment track to the nomination no longer exists.

This view is not supported by political science, as my colleague Jonathan Bernstein will happily inform you. But after months of owning the polls, the populist anti-establishment wing continues to dominate the corporate managerial wing. Nationally, in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, Trump, Cruz and the implausible Ben Carson are attracting 65 percent of the Republican electorate.

If you dismiss the value of national polls, let's take a stroll through some states.

  • In Iowa, support for the anti-establishment triumvirate totals more than 68 percent. Iowa's a conservative bastion, you say? Quite right.

  • Let's go to New Hampshire. There, things are looking up for the establishment. Together, the four establishment laners -- Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio -- combine for 43.4 percent. The two bad boys and the odd doctor? 43.5.

  • In South Carolina the triumvirate is collecting 64.3 percent of the vote.

  • Nevada? Carson, Cruz and Trump are at 59 percent.

  • There hasn't been a public poll of liberal Massachusetts in a while. But in November Trump alone was at 32 percent there.

History and reason argue against an insurgent's chances of capturing the Republican nomination. But the Republican Party has spent most of the past decade shedding reason. Perhaps history is set to abandon the party in turn. Party elites are already coming around to the idea that Cruz, perhaps the most disliked man in the U.S. Senate, may end up as the GOP nominee. John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist, was communications director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert. In 2013 this party insider wrote a blog post entitled "The Tea Party Must Be Crushed." On Jan. 7, 2016, Feehery tweeted that he would support Trump if he wins the nomination.

Maybe Rubio lacks the discipline to wait things out in the establishment lane. But if he sees it as a viable path to the nomination, and the competition in it is weaker, it's hard to imagine why he is now veering over the line like a man on a bender. 

In National Review, David French weighed the possibility that establishment figures will be serially cast aside by the party until the remaining fringe characters are, by necessity, redefined as mainstream. "After all," he wrote, "if Rubio falters, mass numbers of establishment politicians and donors will rush to back Cruz over Trump. And if Cruz falters, those same people will presumably back Trump over Hillary."

Perhaps Trump all along has been running in the only lane the GOP's got.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net