I’m skeptical, but not because I have a counterargument on the merits. It’s because, psychologically, having just watched Trump slaughter Cruz in the mid-Atlantic states and then parlay that momentum into a campaign-crushing Indiana win, his ultimate victory seems more inevitable in hindsight than it really was. “Trump was a force of nature!” Well, yes — by the end, he was a hurricane. But every hurricane starts as a tropical storm. Could Cruz have pushed that storm out to sea with Rubio’s help before it became dangerous?
If there’s one balm that might ease the agony of losing to Trump for the Cruz Crew, it’s a “blame Rubio” narrative!
The Cruz campaign polled in three March 15 primary states, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina — though not in Ohio, home to Kasich, or in Florida.
They also tested the matchup in a poll in Arizona, which would hold its contest on March 22, and in Wisconsin, which would hold its primary on April 5…
“Blowout,” said a source close to Cruz. “65%-35%,” with Trump losing…
But Cruz could not reach [Rubio] on the phone, and others reported back to the Cruz campaign that Rubio did not seem interested in having a discussion about this at all.
“He went off the grid,” said a source close to Cruz. Cruz campaign officials speculated that Rubio was interested in preserving his political viability for a contested GOP convention or the 2020 race.
A source close to Rubio insists that Cruz never reached out with an offer, which is hard to believe given that he did eventually end up naming a running mate in hopes of moving the polls. Once Cruz had begun toying with that idea, he naturally would have checked with Rubio, a bigger name in the party with a loyal constituency, before moving on to Fiorina. Plus, it’s already been reported that Rubio held off on endorsing Cruz partly because he didn’t want Cruz holding it over his head in 2020 if Cruz ended up losing to Trump anyway, which scenario makes more sense? That Cruz never reached out to Rubio to even float the idea of becoming VP or that Rubio didn’t want to subordinate himself to a rival since he has his own eyes still fixed on winning the presidency someday?
Anyway, the timing of Team Cruz’s theory is important. It’s easy to argue that naming Rubio VP after March 15th wouldn’t have meaningfully improved Cruz’s chances. The only primaries between then and Trump’s romp in New York on April 19th, which set him on the path to inevitability, were Arizona, Utah, and Wisconsin. Cruz won those last two handily without Rubio’s help and he lost Arizona by more than 20 points. What Team Cruz is asking, though, is what might have happened if Rubio had dropped out before March 15th, ideally after he won just one state on Super Tuesday, March 1st. Fifteen states voted during the ensuing two weeks. Rubio won just one, the D.C. primary on March 12th where fewer than 3,000 Republicans voted. Apart from his home state of Florida, which he lost to Trump in a landslide, Rubio finished at higher than 16 percent in just two states after Super Tuesday — D.C. and Wyoming, where he took 19 percent and ended up, er, nearly 50 points behind Cruz.
Meanwhile, in no fewer than six states won by Trump over that period — Kentucky, Louisiana, Hawaii, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri — Cruz and Rubio finished with more votes combined than Trump did. It’s too easy to say that Cruz would have won those states if Rubio had quit beforehand and become his VP; after all, Cruz had already picked up many Rubio voters as conservative Marco fans gave up on him and voted strategically for the last conservative candidate with a chance to stop Trump. Other Rubio fans would have been #NeverCruzers and gone on hating Cruz despite Marco’s endorsement, either staying home or voting for Kasich. Then again, there were surely some Rubio fans who didn’t bother voting in those states because they felt his candidacy was doomed and who might have turned out for a Cruz/Rubio ticket. Team Cruz is kidding itself if it thinks it would have won 65/35 anywhere — after all, Trump was pulling 35 percent or better reliably even at the time while Kasich was still getting his share of dead-enders — but it’s not implausible that several of those states, and possibly all of them, would have flipped to Cruz with Rubio as VP. And if they had, not only would Cruz’s delegate totals have shot up at Trump’s expense, the momentum of the race would have shifted from “Can anyone stop Trump?” to “Conservative unity ticket on a roll.” It may even be the case that a Cruz/Rubio ticket, while still losing New York to Trump, would have held him below 50 percent in enough districts there to knock dozens of delegates off his total haul. At the very least, I think, Cruz/Rubio would have been a lock to deny Trump 1,237 delegates and force a contested convention. And a conservative ticket in Cleveland with two of the party’s brightest young stars would have been a heavy favorite over Trump on the second ballot.
Look at this from Rubio’s perspective, though. What incentive did he have to drop out after Super Tuesday? He had a poor showing on March 1st, granted, but he still had Florida coming up. He trailed Trump there, but he’d also trailed Charlie Crist big in 2010 before coming back. He’d performed better than expected in Iowa and South Carolina (where he finished ahead of Cruz) and may have thought he had another surge in him. He might also have believed, not implausibly, that Cruz’s unlikability would catch up with him sooner than it did (ahem, Indiana) and lead some Cruz voters to switch to Rubio instead of vice versa in hopes of making him the last anti-Trump standing. Remember, Super Tuesday was less than a month after the primaries began. Rubio had spent years planning to run for president and was widely seen as the “electable” candidate. Quitting that early, before his home state had voted, was a steep ask. I wish he’d have dropped out sooner but I don’t think it was irrational for him to have believed that anti-Trump voters would start defecting to him eventually if he hung in there. Cruz’s appeal was simply more resilient than many people, me included, expected.
Plus, c’mon. After Cruz fans had spent the campaign putting the boots to him, isn’t Rubio entitled to a little pride in declining to team up?
Oh well. Instead of that, we got a nominee who’s busy these days reminding people that it’s the “Republican Party,” not the “Conservative Party.” Good job, boys. Exit question: This is quite a knife in the gut for Carly Fiorina from Team Cruz, huh? She agreed to become Cruz’s running mate knowing that it was a stunt born of desperation, spent time campaigning for him only for him to pull the plug before her home state of California voted, and now she has staffers whispering to CNN that she wasn’t number one on the Cruz campaign’s VP depth chart. Geez.