Rubio Failed, and Not Just Because of Trump
The 2016 demise of Marco Rubio has been obvious for a while, but it is nevertheless a very big event. He was the Republican Party’s choice. He lost.
Starting last fall, I said he would be the most likely winner. I continued saying that through the early primaries and caucuses. In fact, he seemed on track to win up until his disappointing Super Tuesday on March 1, and even in the days after that I thought he was in fairly good shape -- that is, right up until his support collapsed the weekend after Super Tuesday.
Since I have been dead wrong about Rubio, I can't turn around immediately and tell you why he lost. It’s something all of us who study presidential nominations are going to need to study, and it’s going to take some time, especially for those who believe that strong parties made up of formal organizations and informal networks control their presidential nominations.
Is this year a fluke? A sign that the system has changed? Frankly, I don’t know right now.
But I can run through some reasonable explanations of what happened with Rubio.
The party chose a fatally flawed candidate. Some commentators have floated variations of this explanation. One is that Rubio wasn’t appealing to Republican voters. But for most of the contest, Rubio’s favorability scores among Republicans were excellent. Even when he lagged in the horse-race polls, he usually did well when pollsters probed beyond the top vote choice among Republicans.
I’m also skeptical of blaming his position on immigration or his hawkish foreign policy. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney won Republican nominations with problems that were more severe.
A more plausible explanation of Rubio's weakness is that he choked under pressure. His poor debate before the New Hampshire primary when he repeated a line multiple times, and his debate after Super Tuesday when he got down in the mud with Trump, both appear to have been disasters.
The party is broken. Though parties normally choose their nominees, this Republican Party isn't normal -- it’s dysfunctional. Political scientist Norman Ornstein has pushed this line since August, and he could be correct.
Republicans' attacks on experts, the media and even the “establishment” of their own party made it more difficult than it should have been to explain why Donald Trump was such a pariah.
But it was about more than Trump. Party actors took a long time to decide on Rubio, and even then their choice wasn’t close to a consensus. Some of them permitted Jeb Bush to stay in through South Carolina, and he spent that Bush faction's considerable resources targeting Rubio. Another substantial faction supported Ted Cruz, even though many Washington Republicans dislike him so much that they were willing to play footsie with Trump back in January. And John Kasich has had a fair amount of party support as well, which perhaps is why he has been able to fight on.
Trump. No theory could have accounted for him. (People have used the analogy of the Mule in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” books, a mutant whose inhuman abilities disrupted the normal development of politics in the universe.)
But I’m skeptical of this explanation, too. Trump is good at grabbing the new media's attention, but it’s hard to see much evidence that he’s unusually talented in any other way. Still, if the party's power flows from its ability to capture voters’ attention, it fizzled when the news coverage of Trump overwhelmed other sources of information.
None of the above explanations are mutually exclusive. Perhaps they all played a role.
Rubio finished just 1 percent of the vote behind Trump in Iowa. If Republican party actors had converged on him a few weeks earlier – or if Bush’s super PAC had targeted Trump or Cruz with some of the ads aimed at Rubio, the Florida senator could easily have finished second or even won the state, perhaps knocking out Cruz. If he hadn’t botched the New Hampshire debate, he probably would have finished second there, knocking out Kasich (probably) and Bush (perhaps) earlier and setting up a better finish in South Carolina.
If Kasich had dropped out after South Carolina and Nevada, Rubio might have won Virginia on Super Tuesday and picked up a lot more delegates in other states that day. If only three candidates remained when Rubio began attacking Trump, Rubio’s supporters might have stuck with him. And if Rubio had performed better while attacking Trump, it’s possible that none of the rest would have mattered.
Every candidate has "ifs" they can look back on. Rubio, however, may not have needed all of these things to break this way -- maybe only a few. Maybe only one.
The take-away here is that Rubio’s loss is inconsistent with the theory that parties control nominations and that Trump’s success is inconsistent with views the scholars of political parties have had about the presidential-selection process.
When more evidence emerges, we can adjust our theories or, sometimes, toss them out entirely and search for new ones.
For everyone else, the campaign goes on, with three unexpected candidates remaining.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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