March 2, 2016
Marco Rubio is facing his toughest competitor of the 2016 nomination cycle. It isn’t Donald Trump. It’s the media narrative.
Humans are victims of their past experiences. It’s how we’re wired. If it hasn’t happened before, it’s tough to picture. This is how things like planes crashing into the World Trade Center caught the security apparatus unprepared.
There were 17 candidates, most of them credible. By itself, that indicated the process might change. Then there’s Trump, who others have called a Black Swan himself.
The modern primary system began in 1972. This year represents the 15th and 16th open nomination contests of the era. It doesn’t count the serious primary challenges incumbent presidents Jerry Ford (1976) and Jimmy Carter (1980) faced.
For our purposes, the definition is a party nomination contest with no incumbent. It’s the 7th time Republicans have gone through the process. That’s not exactly a huge sample size, but it covers two generations and the majority of the institutional memory of those involved in the process.
Each time, the process is fairly similar. Several candidates begin. A candidate or two drops out before anyone votes, due to funding issues and failure to gain traction. Iowa narrows the herd further. New Hampshire lops another person or two.
By South Carolina, the only contenders are the winner of Iowa, winner of New Hampshire (Republicans have yet to select the same candidate in both places), and any candidate operating under the fiction that he can ignore the first two spots and join the race later.
The Palmetto State breaks the tie, and Super Tuesday makes it official. The candidate ahead in delegates and raw votes (each time it was the same person) by the time 10 to 15 states have voted gets the nomination.
When Team Rubio began planning their path to the nomination, they assumed the depth of the applicant field would make this year different. They figured even if several candidates dropped out before Iowa, many would remain.
They assumed even if a few candidates clustered near the top in Iowa, several others would continue to New Hampshire. As such, they figured a top tier finish in the Hawkeye State was good enough and the best course of action.
They were correct.
Leaving aside the Trump Phenomenon, in a field that originally included Mike Huckabee (2008 Iowa winner), Rick Santorum (2012 Iowa winner), Scott Walker (2016 Iowa favorite and early polling leader), Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz, would you have suggested Rubio go all in on Iowa?
That doesn’t even account for Ben Carson, who led there for a bit, or Rand Paul, who was originally taken very seriously. If you had told the Rubio team they would finish third in Iowa, only 5 points behind the winner, it would have sounded absolutely great to them.
This was going to and actually did push a larger than normal field to New Hampshire. By the time the field got there, a full half of the original participants were gone. The ratio was normal, being left with 8 contestants was not.
It was foreseeable at the start of the process though. That, combined with the odds of candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie being well suited to New Hampshire, along with Paul possibly being able to follow up on his dad’s strong showing, made the Granite State a poor risk too.
Remember, none of this logic requires Trump. Those states were a problem for Rubio before The Donald blew up all preconceived ideas. He’s served as a test for the plans of each candidate, already blowing most of them up.
Carly Fiorina was a good and popular candidate. There was a market for an aggressive, straight-talking non-politician with a business background and enough ties to the government to know how things work. Trump just played the role for a different audience.
Fiorina had to sell herself to voters who also liked Rubio and Cruz. Trump managed to find an entirely different audience. Absent his existence in the race, who knows.
No Trump, and Ted Cruz has a great Super Tuesday. He likely wins Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to go along with Alaska, Oklahoma, and Texas. He probably clears 50% in his home state with room to spare. Cruz and Rubio would have fought a tight race in Georgia, much as they did in South Carolina. But for first, not second.
No Trump and John Kasich is in a different spot. Right now, his victory path looks delusional, but no Trump and he may well have won New Hampshire. He definitely wins Vermont yesterday, and quite possibly Massachusetts, where he narrowly defeated Rubio for second.
You can’t New England yourself to the presidency, but it would have provided a foundation. Trump is leading noticeably in Michigan, but Kasich is polling in the same tier with Cruz and Rubio.
Absent Trump and he’s a favorite or co-favorite in two (Illinois, Ohio) of the three winner-take-all March 15 states, and competitive in places like Pennsylvania and New York going forward.
The Donald’s appeal to Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans has impacted Kasich as much as anybody. He’s managed to completely explode the strategies of every candidate in the race, no mean feat.
The current survivors are just that. Survivors. I’ll spare you the rundown of how each of the departed ran aground, but yesterday was proof of how strong Cruz’s firewall was, not how weak. It was proof of the strength of Kasich’s counterintuitive plan, not the insanity.
It also proved the wisdom of Rubio’s plan to continue moving forward even if he won very rarely over the first 20-plus contests, during the proportional phase of the process.
He beat Cruz in South Carolina and Georgia. Two months ago, you would have considered this a solid effort. He doubled Ted’s vote in Virginia. Not bad, right? In the caucus states, Cruz finished ahead of him in Iowa and Alaska. Rubio did better in Nevada and Minnesota.
Splitting caucuses with Ted? Also not bad. Like Cruz and Kasich, the Rubio plan is working great, except for the Trump part. With the others, it’s costing them victories, delegates, and a path. It’s almost mathematically impossible for either to get past Trump with Rubio in the way too.
That’s not necessarily the case for Rubio. He can’t deal with having too many opponents, but could hold up ok in a three-way fight with Trump and Cruz. Each of the three have distinct constituencies as long as Kasich isn’t peeling off educated, upper income, purple state suburban voters from Marco.
The crisis is on the narrative side. Rubio set up the Tortoise v. Hare strategy based on no candidate being able to win 10 of the first 15 contests. As long as nobody was winning a majority of the states or delegates, he figured a bunch of strong second and third place results would buy him time until March 15.
He could say “sure, Ted’s strong in the South, and Establishment Candidate X is doing well in New England, but I can compete everywhere, especially in purple states.”
Rubio’s plan and spin to sell it makes absolute sense the way the race was supposed to look. No, a candidate has never won a nomination this way before, but this field is larger than any of the previous examples.
As soon as Trump began getting normal results for a front running eventual nominee, this claim became tougher to sell. After yesterday, where his pace matches the median of the last several nominees, it’s damn near impossible.
A first, fifth, and a bunch of seconds and thirds is excellent for a 17 or even 7 person field. When someone else wins 10 times, it’s crap. You can’t say the unique nature of the race requires different expectations when the results look normal except for who the winner is.
Cruz is doing slightly better than Rubio. FiveThirtyEight came up with a way to measure how candidates are doing against their targets. They used a data stew to calculate which states are most favorable to each candidate, assigning them targets to get to 1237 before the convention.
As you might expect, Trump is doing just fine. He’s at 112% of the targeted delegates, just slightly ahead of schedule. He’s the only candidate on pace, which makes sense. Since only one candidate can get to 1237, the majority will trail.
Cruz sits at 58%, Rubio 48%. You’d rather have the higher number, but essentially similar. If Rubio does a couple points better in Texas and meets the threshold, these numbers flip. But people are getting impatient. The only thing that appears different now is The Donald.
Ted may find himself behind schedule, but he did win many more delegates than Rubio yesterday. If Cruz did slightly worse in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Alaska, and Marco did slightly better in Alabama and Texas, this is a whole different story.
But many nominations are decided like this. John McCain won the 2008 nomination by narrowly defeating Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, and Romney in Florida. A few votes go differently and Huckabee or Romney is the nominee.
These things happen. Rubio’s plan is still fundamentally correct. His best states are mostly voting later on. There’s no particular evidence that momentum matters. Cruz was a goner because voters realized he couldn’t win and would vote for Rubio instead. Except they didn’t and now he’s viable again.
Trump’s voters would abandon him after Iowa proved he wasn’t a winner. Remember that? It was only a month ago. Berners in Colorado and Minnesota didn’t care he got his ass kicked in South Carolina and was getting punked from Georgia to Texas.
The narrative is going to rain down on Marco Rubio for the next 13 days. Aside from Puerto Rico, he isn’t a reasonable favorite anywhere between now and Florida. He’s potentially competitive in Kansas, Idaho and Hawaii, but will push uphill against plenty of negative voices.
Cruz faced the same thing this past week, but nobody suggested he drop out before Super Tuesday. Rubio is going to keep hearing Cruz suggest he exit before Florida gets a chance to give all 99 delegates to Trump.
Marco likes to talk about how nobody wanted him in the primary contest against Charlie Crist in 2010. Cruz has a similar story about his Senate contest. Neither are in a rush to yield, but Ted gets a pass for now.
A glib, young, senator, without a huge record of accomplishments is easily characterized as a lightweight. The shoe fits until proven otherwise. The same was said about JFK, as well as many promising senators you’ve never heard of because the criticism was correct and they faded away.
The New Hampshire debate choke was a problem because it made Rubio look weak. The current narrative is a problem because it makes him look weak. More than any other candidate, Marco is a semi-blank slate we project our expectations on to, good or bad.
He’s never the solid bet he seems when things are going well (before New Hampshire, after South Carolina), or the not ready for prime time, needs more seasoning guy he appears when things go badly (New Hampshire debate, Super Tuesday results.)
I didn’t serve with JFK, he wasn’t a friend of mine. He was dead years before I was born. It’s very possible Marco Rubio is no JFK. On the other hand, Kennedy had a Trump-like figure for a dad, not an opponent. We don’t know if he would have handled this either.
For the next two weeks, Rubio will attempt to block out the noise and run for Governor of Florida. As he pointed out in an interview yesterday, he does have practice running statewide and knows exactly where his votes are.
This won’t be easy. The narrative was against him in 2010 also, but Donald Trump is no Charlie Crist. In addition, Rubio needs to find a way to win Illinois on the same day or the math is a problem even with a victory. He knows this too, but there’s no reason for the campaign to remind anyone.
As long as the narrative doesn’t become a completely self-fulfilling prophecy, Rubio isn’t too far away from where he thought he might be. It’s within the range of outcomes they prepared for. This isn’t an easy feat, but they knew this.
We are conditioned to discount spin, particularly when it’s self-serving to a candidate. We have trouble picturing things we haven’t seen before. Whoever heard of a candidate losing all but one or two of the first 25 contests before winning a nomination?
It’s inconceivable. But the one candidate who imagined it is the one who now has to do it. Game on.