Rubio’s support so far hasn’t been defined as sharply as that for Trump or Cruz. But many in the GOP believe he is now best positioned to consolidate the center-right, non-evangelical, largely white-collar voters who powered John McCain and Mitt Romney to their respective nomination victories in 2008 and 2012. Rubio isn’t a sure thing to coalesce that support: He’s running a considerably more conservative campaign than either McCain or Romney—much less Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, or John Kasich, Rubio’s principal competitors for those voters this year.
“He is the most conservative of the establishment candidates,” Bolger says. And while Christie, Bush, and Kasich have all faded in national polls, each man has invested heavily in New Hampshire, whose results often help identify the favorite for these voters in later states. But Rubio is showing more strength than any of those three in Iowa, which could help him separate from them in the New Hampshire contest a week later on Feb. 9.
Rubio, or whoever else emerges as the champion of the party’s “managerial” white-collar wing, would need to perform well in the more culturally moderate, mostly coastal states that feature few evangelicals and many college graduates. California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland are all states where college graduates cast a majority of primary votes in the most recent presidential exit poll, and evangelical Christians accounted for only about one-third or less. One complication may be that Trump’s “home-court advantage” could help him swipe some of the New York metro-area states that the managerial candidate can usually rely upon.
If the race develops along these lines—with Trump as the champion of blue-collar Republicans, Cruz as the evangelical tribune, and Rubio (or possibly a rival) as the white-collar favorite—the tipping point states could be ones where those forces are closely balanced.