Yes, yes, Rubio fans, I know — it’s a national poll and national polls don’t really mean anything, especially with big endorsements like Trey Gowdy’s only now just starting to trickle in. Fair enough, but this is the most interesting before-and-after comparison I’ve seen regarding the big immigration brawl between Rubio and Cruz. That began, you may remember, with the spat between them onstage at the debate on December 15th and continued all the way through Christmas, with Cruz being grilled repeatedly by the media about his views on legalizing illegals in 2013. Didn’t he introduce an amendment to Rubio’s Gang of Eight bill that would have expanded work permits for illegals? (Yes.) Doesn’t that mean he supports amnesty too? (It’s complicated.) If so, doesn’t that mean that Rubio’s big liability on immigration isn’t as big as everyone thinks? If Rubio can convince voters that he and Cruz are basically the same on amnesty, even though Rubio co-wrote a terrible immigration bill and Cruz voted against it, then Cruz’s big advantage over him is lost.
Here’s evidence that Rubio’s not convincing anyone, despite the media focus on Cruz. On the contrary:
Earlier this month, before the debate, he trailed Trump by two points and Cruz by eight. After the debate, it’s eight and 18, respectively. Hmmmm. And that’s not all. When YouGov asked Republican voters how much confidence they have in the top four Republican candidates to deal with immigration wisely, Trump led the way with 67 percent. Cruz was right behind with 62 percent. Rubio? 45 percent, two points less than even Ben Carson. That might simply be an artifact of Rubio’s overall standing in the race: Not only is Cruz ahead of Rubio overall (19 percent to 14, with Trump far ahead at 36 percent), but he leads when voters are asked who’s more honest, more ready to be commander-in-chief, and more capable of dealing with terrorism. Nowhere is the gap between Cruz and Rubio wider than the 17 points that separate them on immigration, though. That’s also the only metric where Rubio is under 50 percent.
I looked at the last few months’ worth of YouGov polls to see if I could find earlier results for the same question, thinking that would be another way to detect whether Rubio’s standing on immigration has taken a hit. I couldn’t find a direct comparison but here’s how the candidates stacked up on immigration earlier this fall:
That was taken the first week of November. Rubio’s a very distant second to Trump but he’s still a few points ahead of Cruz. Not anymore. We’re left with a chicken-and-egg question: Did Cruz overtake Rubio for various assorted reasons (he’s now second in most national polls) and that’s now begun to bleed over into perceptions of the two on immigration or did Cruz overtake Rubio on immigration first and that’s begun to affect perceptions of the two of them generally? Remember, it was in mid-November when Cruz released his own very tough immigration plan, which opened the door to halting legal immigration over wage concerns, as a way to keep pace with Trump among border hawks. He was at 9.6 percent in RCP’s national poll average the day that happened; he’s at nearly 18 percent now whereas Rubio has barely budged since mid-November. My hunch is that Cruz’s rise has less to do with immigration than with him simply picking up evangelicals from a collapsing Ben Carson, but at the very least it seems like the immigration squabble with Rubio hasn’t hurt him any and might have hurt Rubio, who’s dipped two and a half points in the RCP national average since December 13.
Two exit questions for you. One: Has there been another candidate besides Chris Christie in modern political history who’s arguably destroyed the Republican establishment’s chances of winning not one but two presidential elections? Christie might well have been a stronger candidate than Mitt Romney in 2012 but he passed, leaving the GOP with a losing hand in the general election. This year he’s not as strong a candidate as Marco Rubio — he lacks a national organization, for one thing — but he may have enough mojo in New Hampshire to pass Rubio there, leaving the donor class stuck with either him (if he wins the state outright) or Cruz (if Trump wins New Hampshire and donors are suddenly desperate to block Trump from the nomination). Two: Why is Trump suddenly ripping on Trey Gowdy just because he endorsed Rubio? Wasn’t Gowdy in the mix to be his Attorney General not long ago?