Why Donald Trump Poses an Existential Threat to Marco Rubio

In the battle for the soul of the GOP, the billionaire represents a radically different “future” than the senator is selling.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, listens to a question during an interview after an event at the Uber Technologies Inc. office in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 24, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The latest CNN poll on Thursday found that only two Republican presidential candidates have experienced statistically significant shifts in the last month: Donald Trump and Marco Rubio.

Between Aug. 13-16 and Sept. 4-8, the brash New York businessman surged from 24 percent to 32 percent support, while the first-term Florida senator sank from 8 percent to 3 percent. Many surveys over the summer reflect this reality, both nationally and in early primary states: Trump is leading the pack while Rubio battles to stay in the top five. It's a blow to Rubio, 44, who upon entering the race in April was hailed on the right as perhaps the GOP's best hope in the 2016 election.

In the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Trump's gain has come at Rubio's expense. Rubio's candidacy is an outgrowth of a consensus among GOP elites that the party must “modernize” and appeal to a diversifying electorate if it ever wants to win the White House again. Trump represents the opposite: the white and nativist faction of the party that is anxious about the country's changing demographics. In a way, Rubio represents the “mind” of the GOP, which considers demographic shifts in its goal of retaking the White House, while Trump represents the “heart,” which longs for a more culturally traditional America.

The conventional wisdom about the need to broaden the GOP's appeal to minorities crystallized after the 2012 election when President Barack Obama thumped Mitt Romney, who called for “self-deportation,” while holding him to 27 percent with Hispanics. Two days after Election Day, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that the GOP could regain viability with “a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word,” he wrote. “Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016. It would transform the landscape. He'd win the Hispanic vote. Yes, win it.”

In a remarkably candid autopsy a few months later, the Republican National Committee said that “among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

marco rubio donald trump

Florida Senator Marco Rubio shares the stage with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and billionaire Donald Trump at the first Republican primary debate.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Trump's surprising dominance atop the Republican field since late June comes as he utterly disregards those demographic concerns. His surge began after he made inflammatory comments likening Mexican immigrants to “rapists” and drug dealers. Playing on anti-immigrant sentiments is a centerpiece of his strategy—he has since released a policy paper proposing to deport everyone in the U.S. illegally and end birthright citizenship.

Trump's strength in the primary, and early polls showing him competitive against Democrat Hillary Clinton, are giving many Republican voters hope that they can win back the White House without having to compromise their values. A SurveyUSA poll of registered voters taken from Sept. 2-3 found Trump leading Clinton by 5 points in a hypothetical general election. August surveys by Public Policy Polling, Quinnipiac, CNN, and Fox News have Trump trailing Clinton by just 6 points or fewer.

For all the caveats about early polls, these findings stand to bolster conservatives who believe they can win back the White House without Latinos—and therefore without defaulting to a figure like Rubio, who, despite his abandonment of his 2013 immigration reform bill, remains open to a pathway to citizenship (as part of a sequence of measures) and is one of the most pro-immigration candidates in the Republican field. He has rejected Trump's call to end birthright citizenship. Trump's talent at inflaming anti-immigration passions reminds Republicans of the diversifying America that Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, represents.

Not unexpectedly, Trump tanks with Hispanic voters, complicating his path to victory in a general election in swing states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, where they are large in number. His approval with the growing demographic is a stunning negative 51 percent, while Rubio's is positive 5 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

gallup hispanics

The million-dollar question is whether Trump's strength will hold. Many Republican strategists correctly note that polls at this stage don't historically reflect the outcome of primaries. Some expect the GOP electorate to swing back to past paradigms after the summer.

“There's going to be a rebound of conventionality at some point in this race,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former congressman who is supporting former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. “We've seen people with no political experience at all and a vaguely defined philosophy—Trump and to an extent Ben Carson—jump to the top. I didn't expect that that was going to happen. But to think that experience and philosophy and ideology are not going make any difference going forward in the race is a really radical presumption in American politics.”

A senior aide to Rubio said the campaign is ignoring early horse race polls and is “increasingly confident that Marco will be the nominee.” The aide declined to discuss strategy on the record.

Rubio's strategy has been to position himself as the strongest general-election candidate against Clinton without alienating any of the GOP's core constituencies—Tea Party voters, evangelicals, military hawks, and the establishment. The result has been that each faction likes Rubio, but none loves him. Unlike rivals like Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Rubio has run a largely error-free campaign, and the new CNN poll shows he has room to grow. Although just 21 percent of Republican voters said they're “enthusiastic” about Rubio, that number rises to 69 percent when including those who say they're “satisfied but not enthusiastic.”

But he's actively steering clear of attacking Trump—the closest he has come is to gently poke at his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” by observing that “America is great” but can be greater. One reason may be that Rubio cannot risk turning the primary into a proxy war between the party's nativist and pro-diversity wings. A July CNN poll found that Republican voters support mass deportation and thwarting illegal immigration by a 63 percent to 34 percent margin (by contrast, American voters as a whole prefer a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants by a margin of 56 percent to 42 percent).

“I know how this movie ends. We're going to have a more sensible position on immigration or we'll lose,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who supports immigration reform, told Bloomberg. “We're alienating Hispanics for, I think, understandable reasons.”

Rubio's strategy hinges on Trump collapsing. That looks like a dubious proposition. Trump has repeatedly defied predictions of impending doom and already outlasted erstwhile 2012 front-runners Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry, all of whom enjoyed their moment in the sun before flaming out. The self-funded billionaire also doesn't risk running out of money to keep his campaign running.

On the campaign trail, Rubio's central pitch to Republicans is that he's the candidate of the future. Trump is urging them to pick a different future, and so far it is working.

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