December 22, 2015
What is Marco Rubio waiting for? While Ted Cruz consolidates his position by the day, Marco sits. He has engaged Cruz in battle, both on immigration and national security, but has skipped plenty of steps a top tier candidate would normally take.
He lacks the big PAC money of Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Cruz, the wide individual donor base of Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson and Cruz. Though Rubio has made strides netting a few big fish, he’s financially limited compared to his peers. Never mind Donald Trump, who soaks up so much free media his yuuge wallet is still in reserve.
Other candidates have focused geographically. Cruz is making a big push in Iowa and following up by laying the groundwork for March 1 in the South. Carson has done a less intensive version of the same.
After failing to connect nationally, Jeb is camped out in New Hampshire, joining Chris Christie and John Kasich. Among candidates with any pulse, only Carly Fiorina is less visibly focused on a specific place or two. Even at that, she’s spent more time in Iowa and New Hampshire than Marco, and her current polling status indicates this isn’t a model anyway.
If you don’t have more money than your competitors, or more volunteers, or more focus, there’s always endorsements. FiveThirtyEight keeps track of just such a thing. None of the GOP candidates compare to how Hillary has locked down the Dem side. Rubio has a few, more than anyone except Jeb. His are more recent too. But it’s still feeble by the standards of previous nominees.
Perhaps with Lindsey Graham safely out of the race, Rubio will get more nods from his fellow senators. A few freshmen have already backed him, but the leaders are staying quiet. You can make a real argument the best favor Mitch McConnell can do for Rubio is to stay quiet.
Unlike Cruz, who is more than happy to opine on how he’s going to win, Team Marco is holding their cards very close. Aside from a strong, under-the-radar effort in Nevada, there isn’t a single early state where he has a noticeable edge. What are they possibly thinking?
If they are up to what I think, it’s a very dangerous and very smart play. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, colonial rebels were outmanned and outgunned by the British. In order to hold their ground, especially with the scattershot single bullet rifles of the time, they needed to hold their fire until the last seconds.
As the story goes, they were instructed not to fire until they saw the whites of the attacking British soldiers eyes. You can imagine how fun that is to do. Every instinct tells you to shoot before the infantry or cavalry is on top of you.
But you’ll miss and won’t have time to reload. No matter what, the odds are against you, but this is the most likely way to draw blood and defend yourself. Though many observers and betting markets have always thought Rubio was a strong contender, there’s no such thing as a runaway favorite in a (then) 17-person field.
For much of the race, he’s had at least as good a shot as anyone else, but far less than a 51% chance of winning. If the party is getting ready to nominate the next man up, a close runner-up from last time, someone with tons of institutional support, that candidate can afford to stumble.
Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, Mitt Romney in 2012 all tripped and recovered. That margin for error didn’t exist this time. It’s not only because of Trump.
While The Donald is an unexpected obstacle, his monopoly on campaign oxygen helped push supposed contenders like Scott Walker out, so it’s a net wash. As Walker’s experience shows, there’s no room for a first-time presidential candidate in a crowded field to re-inflate a popped bubble.
Carson seems dead in the water right now. This may be slightly premature, but no momentum at all and Cruz is figuratively stepping on his throat. He peaked early enough to get knocked down and doesn’t have the long-term credit with voters beyond his core group to easily recover.
Whatever you think of Rubio’s chances, he’s clearly in better shape than the departed Walker or Carson. Jeb is potentially beginning a bit of a comeback, but he would trade places with Marco too. So would Chris Christie, as well as he’s beginning to do in New Hampshire.
Trump is a unicorn. Win, lose, or draw, only he could have taken this path. No campaign could have planned for him in advance. The better ones have adjusted well.
Cruz looks well set for a strong run and it isn’t an illusion. The comparison makes Rubio look negligent, scared, or both. For the candidate most visibly missing Senate votes, it’s not a good look.
For pundits and insiders that is. I doubt voters anywhere outside Iowa, New Hampshire, or maybe South Carolina are too interested about where Marco Rubio is spending his time. Political junkies, yes. Insiders, yes. Pundits, sure. The voters don’t give a damn.
The most discussed justification for Rubio’s stall is to keep expectations down. Very few delegates are assigned in the first few states. Winning is obviously good, but exceeding expectations is arguably more important. Heavily favored candidates have run into trouble by only winning narrowly. Moral victories have given others a bounce.
Unless you’re consistently finishing in single digits, lack of funds is the most common reason for candidate exit. For all of his supposed failure to launch, Rubio always finds himself in double digits. This isn’t likely to change, as he remains arguably the most popular candidate in the field.
It’s hard to imagine Jeb or Christie doing so resoundingly well in New Hampshire and South Carolina that party elders would try to rush Rubio out of the race. He can afford to stick around for a while. Especially if he doesn’t go all-in somewhere and lose.
This isn’t Rudy Giuliani’s failed Florida firewall from 2008. Rudy did very poorly in Iowa. Rubio will at least do ok. Same goes for the other early states. In the meanwhile, he’s making no claim that Florida or any other state is in the bag later on.
Many observers are concerned Cruz can put the race away early. He’s ahead in Iowa, with some room to do even better. New Hampshire isn’t completely off the table and he could easily win South Carolina. The March 1 states set up very well for Ted.
However, all of these states assign their delegates proportionately. As long as a few candidates are in the mix, while Cruz could win frequently, others will grab plenty of delegates. Reagan spotted President Ford a very big lead in 1976 before storming back to make things very close.
The Gipper didn’t have the benefit of a third, fourth, or fifth candidate siphoning off delegates from Ford until he could get his bearings. Even if Rubio’s funding slows up, as mentioned above, he does not have an expensive field organization to keep going, nor is he relying on momentum to convince small donors to keep forking over $30.
If Trump wins Iowa and goes on a roll, the same thing applies. He will have a difficult time dominating the delegate haul. This is new. As recently as 2012, a far greater percentage of delegates were winner-take-all. This makes the turtle strategy more viable than ever before.
There’s one extra dimension to Rubio’s strategy. By waiting until the last possible moment to make his move, perhaps not until after Iowa and New Hampshire, he can adjust depending on how things play out. Every other candidate is locked into a defining persona and particular strategy.
Cruz had to move early. His path was always combining evangelicals, very conservatives and Tea Party (sometimes one voter is more than one of these). With several other candidates in those lanes, he needed to pick his course early. It worked. But it also failed for the several other candidates who wanted to do the same thing.
Trump is Trump. Christie was locked into his approach ever since Bridgegate ended his run as a national front runner. Jeb was always going to wind up on the moderate establishment side. Kasich opted for McCain/Huntsman New Hampshire guy very early on.
Rubio still hasn’t chosen. We’ve talked about him as the lead establishment guy for a couple/few months now, but that’s more due to the weakness of the other choices than Marco doing anything in particular to assume that mantle. Jousting with Cruz, running to his right on foreign policy and arguing for equivalency on immigration is the opposite of that course.
I’ve wondered why Rubio would risk letting Christie and/or Jeb back into the game. Had he pushed more aggressively in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, he might have completely blocked them. We’ve already established he wasn’t up for taking the risk of trying and perhaps failing. But what if he actually doesn’t mind keeping them around for a bit?
Remember, except for morale and presumed momentum, victories are relatively unimportant for the first 20-25 contests. Finishing a strong second or third everywhere actually adds up better than a few wins and a few wipeouts.
If Christie survives New Hampshire along with Rubio, Marco has another candidate to run against Trump, both attacking him verbally and drawing away moderate voters who want a loud candidate. We’re assuming voters are pro-insurgent or pro-establishment, but it’s more complicated than that.
What about Jeb? There is more risk of Bush taking votes from Rubio, but he also frames Marco as a solid conservative, much as Trump makes Cruz look extra sane. Rubio is conservative. The Gang of 8 immigration legislation is a major apostasy, but aside from that, he’s arguably closer to conservative orthodoxy than Ted.
Even if Jeb were to make Rubio finish second or third a couple of times where he would have otherwise won, the cost in delegates is relatively minimal. In return, he gets a major assist in positioning. The odds of a brokered convention are not minimal. Test it yourself with this handy Real Clear Politics interactive tool.
In a two-way race with Cruz, Rubio runs the risk of falling a little short, as the more conservative voters go to Ted, along with some of Trump’s disaffected voters. In a three-way race including Trump, Rubio would likely do well, but might have a very hard time winning 50.1% of the delegates.
Cruz could successfully argue that he’s the appropriate compromise candidate, as some of Rubio’s voters find him acceptable and many of Trump’s do. On the other hand, in a world where Bush and/or Christie are holding some delegates, Rubio, assuming he’s not operating at a large delegate deficit, is the logical compromise.
I’m not suggesting Rubio is purposely trying to ensure more competition from the establishment side, but it does make sense that he would fear going all-in and failing more than one or more of the governors lingering.
He is taking advantage of being the most widely acceptable Republican and will milk it for all it’s worth. Why invest in a ground game if you don’t know which states you’re really competing in. Between debate exposure and regular cable and Sunday interview appearances, he’ll get plenty of exposure after Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina.
There’s just enough big PAC money to run a decent amount of ads. Rubio isn’t 1976 Jimmy Carter, trying to introduce himself to the country as a winner. He’s not 2008 Mike Huckabee or 2012 Rick Santorum. Marco is pretty well known and becoming increasingly so.
As long as he doesn’t care about finishing 3rd or 4th in Iowa and New Hampshire, the ground stuff is probably somewhat overrated, especially if Nevada isn’t the only caucus state where he’s paying attention. The California primary in June will probably actually matter this year, and that one (along with most of the large delegate haul states) is won on the airwaves.
Cruz, Carson and Sanders are picking up micro donations by having targeted specific personas and platforms. Rubio might have taken this path himself, but purposely chose not to. It’s not guaranteed to work, but he’s outlasted most of the other competition already.
Trump has proven free media goes a long way, and once the race is down to a few candidates, Rubio will get even more attention. He’s taking a huge risk, and if he falls well short, experts will say he should have invested more on the ground and taken action sooner.
A first-time presidential candidate in a crowded field often has one shot and no opportunity to re-load. Why not wait until you see the whites of your opponents’ eyes? The rebels lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, but I seem to remember they won the war.