Marco Rubio is dipping in national polls going into the final week of 2015. While the drop is slight, and far from irreversible less than six weeks away from the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, where the first votes will be cast in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination, it is happening at a time when the U.S. senator from Florida needs to be moving in the opposite direction.
Viewed by many Republican and Democratic elites as the his party’s best hope of winning back the White House, Rubio is polling a distant third both nationally and in the first three voting states. He has lost ground in Iowa to Ted Cruz. In New Hampshire, which hosts the first presidential primary Feb. 9, he faces fresh competition from Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who has been more active in the state in recent months and has picked up some prize endorsements there.
Senator Marco Rubio made a big bet on an immigration overhaul that failed — and he has been running away from it since. Now his past is catching up with him, stoking old grievances from conservative rivals who are reopening one of the most vulnerable episodes in his past.
The anger toward Mr. Rubio on the right has only grown in recent days as he has taken to aggressively questioning Senator Ted Cruz’s toughness on illegal immigration, a line of attack that some Republicans say they find disingenuous…
People who saw Mr. Rubio speak near Des Moines the other day found their windshields plastered with black-and-white fliers that mocked the Florida senator as “Chuck Schumer’s amnesty pitchman.” If Mr. Rubio is elected president, warned the fliers, which were noticed by a freelance journalist, he would support liberal immigration policies and “impose them by force on Americans.”
Among Sen. Marco Rubio’s closest allies, he stands nearly alone on the issue of NSA spying.
Following the terror attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, Rubio suggested that those who have tried to rein in the National Security Agency’s surveillance powers may be responsible for a future terrorist attack—a barb directed primarily at fellow candidate Sen. Ted Cruz…
But this characterization proves problematic given that most of Rubio’s supporters in Congress supported changes to the NSA’s program. In fact, 21 of Rubio’s 24 congressional supporters backed the USA Freedom Act—a bill Rubio has said “weaken[s]… U.S. intelligence programs”—this year (a 25th supporter, Rep. Darin LaHood, wasn’t in Congress at the time of the vote). And of these 21 members of Congress, more than a dozen co-sponsored a version of the USA Freedom Act in the previous Congress…
Chief among Rubio’s latest endorsements is Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican congressman whose support Rubio touted widely this week in Iowa. But Gowdy was a co-sponsor of the USA Freedom Act.
The substance of the attack on Rubio not showing up to vote may matter less to establishment Republicans in Iowa, who are still trying to determine whether the young first-term senator is truly the GOP’s best general-election candidate. “I keep hearing that Rubio is people’s favorite among [choices Rubio, Bush and Christie] not because they love his voting record but because they think he’s the party’s best shot to beat Hillary Clinton,” Gross said. “So the other candidates really have to attack that electability narrative if they’re going to bring him down.”
But the absenteeism takedown has a chance of resonating in New Hampshire, where it runs parallel to recent stories about the Florida senator’s relatively light campaign schedule being a particular affront to an electorate that relishes its first-in-the-nation responsibility and demands accessibility from candidates.
“New Hampshire voters demand respect for their process and their prerogatives,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “The theme of Rubio’s absence from the state is likely to continue to be the focus of both Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.”…
“So, I can’t wait to turn on C-SPAN 2, because he gives a good speech, Marco, and I want to hear his stirring speech that’s going to try to persuade people on the floor of the Senate not to vote for this awful spending bill,” Christie said during a stop at a coffee shop in Muscatine. “Except he never showed up. He was totally opposed to it and didn’t go there to vote no. Then what’s it matter that you’re opposed to it?”
And in this: Reasonable people can’t stomach the thought of Trump or Cruz as the nominee. We can’t accept what that would say about America, or what that could mean for it. Rubio is the flawed, rickety lifeboat we cling to, the amulet we clutch. He’ll prevail because he must. The alternative is simply too perverse (Trump) or too cruel (Cruz).
But so much about him and the contention that he’s poised for victory is puzzling…
He’s a conservative crusader, happy to carry the banner of the Tea Party. He’s a coolheaded pragmatist, ready to do the bidding of Wall Street donors…
He pushed for a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, until he suddenly stepped away from it. He has said that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, but he has also said that he’d back less extreme regulations if they were the only attainable ones…
[A]s the wait for his candidacy to heat up lengthens, I wonder: Could he burn out before he ever catches fire?
Mr. Rubio’s style can be stirring — or oddly disconnected. When a young woman at his event in Clinton wondered what he would do to lure millennial voters to the Republican Party, pointing out that she was one of just a handful from that generation who came out to see him, Mr. Rubio delivered a rehearsed-sounding answer heavy on campaign talking points instead of an actual strategy. “Here is how we are going to fix it,” he said. “By allowing free enterprise and limited government to be applied to the challenges of the 21st century.”
The young woman looked unpersuaded.
He has more experience than Mr. Obama had when he first ran for president, Mr. Rubio argues. And Mr. Obama is a failure, he says, because of his ideology, not his biography.
But now the Florida senator is taking a sharply different approach. His answer to the often-asked question about how he would be any different from the president is: He wouldn’t, really…
“A liberal Democrat would say Barack Obama has been a pretty influential president,” Mr. Rubio told a crowd of several hundred people finishing a pancake breakfast here. “He got Dodd-Frank, the stimulus, the deal with Iran. All these things that they were able to get done, they’d look at it and say, ‘This guy’s been pretty consequential.’”
Still, Mr. Rubio insisted, don’t take the analogy too far. “He was a community organizer and a backbencher in the Illinois state legislature. So there are huge differences.”
On a Tuesday afternoon call with national contributors, the Florida senator outlined his campaign trail activity and pushed back on the recent media narrative that he’s running a passive campaign, according to two participants on the call…
“I’m amused at those stories,” Rubio said, according to notes provided by one of the participant. “We said at the outset that this campaign was going to be about ideas and our message so we don’t spend much time talking about process or strategy.”
“Just because we aren’t telling the media our strategy doesn’t mean we’re not organized,” he added.
Rubio’s strategy is built on a preference for made-for-TV rallies and cable news appearances rather than the endless handshaking and baby-kissing that tradition suggests paves the way to the White House. His approach has GOP strategists questioning whether Rubio is willing to do the grinding work of retail politics required to win the early-nominating states…
While Rubio’s team publicly still hopes to perform well in all four early-nominating states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – supporters privately acknowledge the likelihood that his best chance at a first-place victory has trickled down to Nevada, where he has logged more visits than most other candidates…
“Are they working? I’m sure they are. Are they talking to people? I’m sure they are,” [strategist Chip Felkel] said. “The risk of that is the party, and the independent-minded people, and the angry-mob crowd, pitchfork-carrying folks, are not going to have anything to do with it.”
He added: “They’re counting on a surge in the end. It doesn’t leave them a lot of room for error. It doesn’t leave them a lot of wiggle room.”
What Rubio needs if he wants to win is a strategy for mobilization that brings his voters to the polls and persuades undecided Republicans. But there’s no sign he has one, or even wants one. “One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a presidential primary like this is to mistake action for progress,” said a Rubio strategist to the Washington Post in October. “The days of having to have 50 field staffers and 25 offices are done.” One argument is that this is a reasonable strategy in a crowded field of candidates. Instead of committing yourself in hopes of winning one state, you hold onto second or third in several states. As long as you don’t underperform, you’re viable, and if you outperform, you’re golden. And instead of fighting for a win in the early game, you grind it out in the late stages.
But again, this depends on either a structure that can deliver votes, or tremendous hustle from the candidate (hustle which, from Rubio, is still forthcoming). Absent that, you risk defeat by better-organized opponents. Well-organized candidates can take advantage of rules to build powerful leads (Obama throughout the 2008 primaries), and supremely driven ones can surge ahead with previously uncommitted supporters (Rick Santorum in the 2012 Iowa caucus). Likewise, you shouldn’t discount the power and importance of winning early. Early wins give a burst of publicity and prominence that skilled candidates can turn into fundraising, volunteers, and eventually votes…
The big point is this: Marco Rubio would be in much better shape if he would devote his time and energy to campaign building and infrastructure. It would boost him in early states, and sustain him through Super Tuesday. As it stands, his path to victory depends—in essence—on luck. And if anything goes worse than he expects, he’s finished.
The entire dynamic of the GOP race could be changed if Clinton delivers an early knockout blow against Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Clinton is currently favored to win comfortably in Iowa, but trails Sanders in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire polls could change overnight with a big Clinton win in Iowa. And with a Clinton win in New Hampshire, the Democratic race will effectively end…
Facing the very real prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency could re-focus the priorities of Republican primary voters. Those who haven’t thought much about electability may suddenly consider it more important. Those who already prioritize electability may decide to consolidate support among one candidate with increased urgency.
To be sure, voters who place a premium on electability could still decide to vote for Trump, because they think he’d be more aggressive against Clinton; or they could go with Cruz, because they believe that winning the presidency is about motivating the party’s base; or they could be attracted to one of many other candidates.
But, of all the arguments currently available to Rubio, his competitiveness against Clinton is the strongest. So the more worried Republican voters are about Clinton, the more it plays into his strength.
Actually, if there’s a better analog for Rubio than Obama, it might be John Kerry in 2004. Like Rubio, Kerry was an elusive and insecure candidate, a senator who stepped through every conversation like it was a minefield from his youth in Vietnam.
But Kerry was also the perfect consensus candidate for a riven party — liberal enough to appease supporters of Howard Dean and establishment enough to reassure everyone else. He was both acceptable and electable.
It’s hard to think of any constituency in the Republican Party right now — evangelicals, libertarians, nativists — whose goal in life is to make Rubio our next president, as opposed to Cruz or Carson or Trump. But as I wrote last April, Rubio might still be the candidate who satisfies most of them.
And Rubio is almost certainly one of the most formidable general-election candidates in the field, as any honest Democrat will tell you. Were he to win the nomination, whether against Clinton or Bernie Sanders, he’d have the straight-up generational contrast he wanted from the start, along with the debate stage on which he tends to excel.
No, Rubio isn’t another Obama, for better or worse. But what he is could well be enough.