A national strategy.

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Marco Rubio's Gamble in Early States

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Senator Marco Rubio appears to be attempting a risky strategy: running in Iowa and New Hampshire with a less-than-traditional field operation. We won’t know whether it will pay off until after those states vote, and perhaps not even then. But here are the potential risks and rewards:

As Joshua Darr explains at FiveThirtyEight, a strong field operation delivers results. Both place-order finish and percentage of the vote are likely to affect future media coverage, so sacrificing any potential gains is very risky.

Media coverage is also based on beating (or falling short of) expectations. If a poor get-out-the-vote effort means a candidate won't meet polling projections, that candidate will fall short of expectations and therefore be a “loser” regardless of his or her place-order finish.

So is Rubio making a big mistake?

Perhaps. But the case for what he’s doing isn’t totally crazy.

A thorough field operation is very expensive. Scott Walker was building one; he’s back home in Wisconsin now, and Rubio is third in the national polls and (slowly) rising. We can’t prove that Walker would have thrived had he taken a different approach, but it’s possible.

Also, both the media and savvy party actors may take Rubio’s strategy into account when assessing his early results. It’s a risky way to lower expectations, to be sure; if Rubio winds up falling too low, he’s probably finished, regardless of what anyone thought going in. But suppose Iowa ends up with Ted Cruz at 35 percent, Donald Trump at 20 and Rubio with 15, when it could have been Cruz 30, Rubio 22, Trump 18? Those headlines aren't very different.

Perhaps the strongest case for de-emphasizing Iowa organization is if the candidate believes that the results of primaries and caucuses just aren’t as important as winning the support of national party actors who decide nominations. Of course, those endorsements must eventually translate into accumulating delegates state by state, which means winning voter support. But the more “the party decides,” the less Iowa, New Hamsphire and South Carolina determine the nominee.

I probably believe in the party choosing as much or more than anyone, but I’m still not sure I’d advise a candidate to take this gamble. It’s going to be fascinating to watch -- with the nomination at stake.  

  1. Granted, the difference between Cruz 25, Trump 22, Rubio 20 and Rubio 25, Cruz 23, Trump 19 is substantial. 

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

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Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net