2016 Republicans, Debates, March 1, Strategy, Uncategorized

Debate Recap: Was Marco Too Late?

February 26, 2016

Consensus is Marco Rubio did very well. He finally started throwing punches at The Donald, and landed more than his share. Viewers were left to wonder where this guy was a few weeks ago.

Consensus is Marco Rubio is too late. As well as he may have done, Trump has much of his support locked in. Even if Rubio peeled some of the leaners away, he’s trailing by double digits in several Super Tuesday states. That’s a lot of ground to make up in a short amount of time.We won’t know if this was too late until the votes are in on Tuesday. If Rubio fails to win anywhere, yes, this was too late. That doesn’t mean he should have started sooner though.

Let’s pretend his campaign had perfect foresight. Let’s figure they would have known Trump was not only for real, but a presumptive nominee if not stopped in February. When exactly should he have started down this path?

The first debate was in early August. Ten candidates crowded on stage. Rubio was seventh in the national poll averages. Rick Perry had spent the past couple of weeks attacking Trump in the hopes of qualifying for the main event and fell short.

Very hard to see how focusing on Trump would have helped Rubio. Observers thought Megyn Kelly got the best of him, and were proven mistaken. Would a rookie presidential candidate in his first debate have done better?

We’ve seen from Chris Christie how hard it is to attack a candidate without harming yourself in the process. Rubio isn’t in this to stop Trump, he’s not a niche candidate. We need to find an opportunity that would have improved his odds at nomination.

Also keep in mind Rubio got high marks for the first debate and saw a modest poll bounce. He entered it only a few points above the cut line. His best strategy at this point was making sure he qualified for the next debate.

That second debate was the beginning of the end for Jeb Bush. It was when he asked Trump to apologize for insulting his wife and The Donald passed. It was also when Carly Fiorina was unanimously (by any non-Trumpist) thought to have bested him in voice-to-voice combat.

To recap, Fiorina did scrap with Trump. She won the duel. She was judged to have won the debate. Trump spent the last hour tiredly leaning over his lectern. His poll numbers dropped a few points. Carly pulled within range of him in some.

Yes, this really did happen less than six months ago. How well did winning that debate go for Carly? Once again, Marco got good reviews and saw a slight uptick in polling.

The third debate was the CNBC fiasco, where biased moderators were used as props by the candidates, Ted Cruz in particular. Jeb attempted to attack Rubio on Senate attendance and got skulled by the boomerang as Marco turned his words on him.

This wasn’t the debate for any candidate to attack another. Cruz saw his standing rise after eviscerating the moderators. The Rubio shots that sounded almost charming last night, would have seemed petty and out of place in the CNBC debate context.

Then Paris and San Bernardino happened, Trump announced his plans to ban Muslims at the door, and The Donald’s support began to rise above the 25% ceiling most had figured. Instead, that became his floor.

The average Trump supporter didn’t make up their mind in January. They didn’t make up their mind in December. It was earlier. By the end of November, he’d spent a full five months in the race. He’d said any number of things that would have disqualified someone else.

If you don’t think The Donald will lose much support because Rubio partially carved him up yesterday, how can you figure the same thing in mid-December would have made a difference?

As much as I enjoyed Marco’s salvos and thought he presented himself well, there wasn’t anything said to make a committed Trump supporter bail. If you really care about the details of an Obamacare replacement plan, The Donald isn’t your candidate.

You don’t care if he used illegal Polish immigrants on a construction site in the early 1980s. You don’t care what happened with Trump University or what his taxes say. Love him or hate him, Trump is a very effective candidate.

We take this for granted, but he hung in yesterday with Rubio attacking from one side and Ted Cruz from the other. They won on points, but it was 2 on 1 and he got in plenty of decent sound byte responses. How well do you think Mitt Romney would have dealt with those two in 2012? Think Bob Dole could have kept his cool and fired back?

I do think this will push a few voters away from Trump. These are the less committed people, those who have not entirely made up their minds. A third of the GOP electorate loves him. A third hates him. This isn’t evenly distributed from state to state.

When Trump has momentum, he adds some of the third that are still making up their minds to his total. When he fades a little, they vanish, but it’s not reasonable to expect his floor is any lower than 25 to 40 percent, depending on the state. You’ll notice the midpoint is a third.

We don’t really think Rubio could have stopped this all by himself. If Rubio is that powerful, he should be able to consolidate the field around him and start posting great results. It hasn’t happened because he’s a good candidate who showed improvement last night, not Abraham Lincoln.

If he couldn’t have stopped Trump, we can only criticize him for keeping other opponents in the race too long by waiting to attack Trump. Perhaps if he’d shown strength sooner, voters would have bought earlier.

This doesn’t pass the smell test either. In December, Marco was actively engaging another candidate in combat. Ted Cruz. It isn’t reasonable to suggest he could have fought Cruz and Trump at the same time. Ted has dealt with Marco and Trump concurrently and wound up worse for wear.

Remember, December was when Jeb’s PAC was dumping well more than a million dollars a week in negative advertising on Rubio. He had no natural base in either of the first two states. A knock down battle with Trump benefits the governors. How does this help Marco?

If he’d avoided Cruz to concentrate on Trump, that would have harmed his chance to pull ahead of Ted as the conservative anti-Donald. If Cruz has more cover, he likely performs better in South Carolina and Nevada. Great for Team Stop Trump, not so great for Rubio.

There is only one way that Marco harmed himself, and it has nothing to do with Trump. The debate sequence with Christie was tremendously destructive. It cost him second place in New Hampshire. Absent the implosion, the “3-2-1” strategy might have worked.

Failing at that, he would have finished a close second in the Palmetto State, making Nevada’s blowout more of an outlier than continuation of a trend. John Kasich would be back in Ohio instead of taking a few points away from Marco in southern states and being completely in the way in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.

Cruz would have lost to Rubio by at least a few points in three straight states, making him the far less viable option of the two. Combined with Rubio doing exactly what he actually did in yesterday’s debate, Marco would find himself on track to win the necessary few Super Tuesday states to hit the gas on March 15.

The odds are against Rubio now. He needs to win on Tuesday to have a shot and there are no guaranteed wins on the board. He has Kasich in the way. Cruz may well decide to stick around after March 1. Marco can still win, but given even odds, you’d take Trump.

Blame Chris Christie. Blame Marco Rubio for freezing. Just don’t blame him for waiting this long to attack Trump. His timing was perfect. The anti-Trump forces are now desperate enough to support anyone who can stop him. If there aren’t enough of these people to get nominated, Trump was going to win anyway.

New Hampshire was potentially lethal. On Tuesday we find out if it was fatal.




2 thoughts on “Debate Recap: Was Marco Too Late?

  1. I like your analysis here. It’s helpful to get into the “way back” machine and remember how we got here.

    As a side note, you mentioned that Trump was very effective and that he “hung in there” against two opponents. However, I seem to remember a moment when Wolf Blitzer said, “Mr. Trump…” and Trump interrupted, whining, “Why does everybody keep asking me!?” He sounded like a kid in the backseat of the car. However, there were so many other soundbites, and later in the debate he rediscovered his chutzpah, so it hasn’t gotten any play in the highlights I’ve seen.


    1. He did complain. Rubio also has a new bit on the trail where he talks about Trump being unhinged backstage during breaks. Can’t independently verify that one, but it’s a fun picture. Still, I think few others would have done as well. Cruz was the recipient of more than a small amount of fire in the Iowa debate Trump skipped. It wasn’t anywhere near as personal, but it definitely threw him off. Having said that, he won Iowa, so aside from Rubio getting stuck in neutral back in New Hampshire, it’s hard to say if any of these debate moments have changed much.


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