Covering politics in Jacksonville, the largest city in the country led by a GOP mayor, I’ve had a unique perspective on presidential politics in the Sunshine State this cycle.
Mayor Lenny Curry was elected for many reasons, but one of them was that in early 2015, he was able to trumpet endorsements from Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
This was in the pre-Trump era, when Bush was considered the presumptive frontrunner, and Rubio was in the conversation.
Rubio had history here (the local Republican executive committee was the first outside of Miami-Dade to be receptive to his Tea Party flavored pitch for the Senate in 2009), and his knowledge of this area and that candidate led him to be able to give a convincing rally to the troops at an election eve rally in May 2015 for Curry.
Curry beat the incumbent Democratic mayor by a couple of points. And a lot of local Republicans won also. The GOP won the sheriff’s office (a big deal in this market) and entrenched its two-thirds control of the city council.
So when the primary calendar got past South Carolina, Mayor Curry did what many Sunshine State Republicans have done (especially since Jeb got out of the race) and endorsed his good friend Marco Rubio. Robocalls followed from Curry in this area, and his counterparts throughout the state.
For one thing, Rubio is one of their own, a forty-something Florida Republican with buy in from the state party. But many Florida Republicans also thought that this would be the year that a man from the Sunshine State would ascend to the Presidency. And they weren’t thinking that man would be Trump.
Yet with just over a week before the GOP primary, Rubio can’t find a poll that has him even within the margin of error. His “best” poll, put out by an anti-Trump PAC, has Little Marco down by 5 points (35-30) to Big Donald. Operatives in this state typically leak internal polls that show their guy ahead. Not down by a single-digit margin.
The Florida delegate apportionment model lets the winner take all, and it was set up that way to clear a path to the nomination for Jeb Bush. At this writing, Rubio is way behind Trump and Cruz, whom Fox News have deemed The Frontrunners.
Meanwhile, the Rubio campaign clings to a narrow narrative—that it will win Florida March 15, and that win and its 99 delegates will represent a turning point in the race. It is a narrative that Cruz, Trump, their advocates, and most everyone with an opinion who doesn’t have a stake in Rubio rejects. And probably with good reason.
On Saturday, Rubio held a rally in Jacksonville (a stopover between CPAC, which earned him second in the straw poll, and Puerto Rico, where he was the only candidate to make a play, which really was targeted to the Puerto Rican community of Central Florida). The city should have set up well for Rubio. But even before the rally, there were signs of trouble.
The campaign wanted to have the rally at the University of North Florida arena on Jacksonville’s Southside. But they couldn’t swing the $11,000 charge. So they went with the Morocco Temple, a nearby concert and event facility, which rents for $5,000. The Morocco Temple’s main ballroom holds 3,000 for concerts, when not configured for press corps setups, which took up maybe a tenth of the floor space. The front of the house was crowded; the back of the house and the sides had plenty of standing room.
But a lack of turnout to a rally, on a sunny 70 degree Saturday afternoon, wasn’t the only problem. The bigger problem revealed in Rubio’s speech was a fundamental disconnect between the movement conservative talking points that are de rigueur in his speeches, and the kind of populist appeals that are moving the Golden Corral Conservatives and Gun Rack Republicans who are deciding state after state for Cruz or Trump.
Appeals to a National Greatness conservatism, paeans to conservatism in general, and pledges to support Israel and reform regulatory structures all fell flat with the crowd beyond the true believers in the front and the VIP seats. As did a pledge to “repeal every one of Barack Obama’s unconstitutional executive orders.”
It all sounds great in certain conservative magazines. But it doesn’t really resonate with people outside those circles. Very few Jacksonville voters are seen around town with their Weekly Standard tote bag.
Rubio’s issues were revealed earlier that day in DC as well, when his CPAC speech was well-received, but when the best reaction came after lines that targeted Trump.
If the GOP presidential race is a novel, Trump is the protagonist. Rubio? An episodic antagonist from earlier in the book, one destined to be eclipsed. If anyone is going to emerge as Trump’s permanent intraparty foil, it’s Ted Cruz, whose data driven campaign has gotten tremendous return on investment for money spent. As I explained recently:
Part of the key: the ground game, augmented by the so-called Camp Cruz, in which unused dorms and old hotels are rented as temporary housing for the Cruz team, at a significant cost savings. And by Cruz Kits, which contain yard signs and other tchotchkes. And by Strike Forces, comprised of seasoned volunteers from the GOTV effort in other elections.
These elements, augmented by “cutting edge technology” and the “highest investment in deep data analysis,” have helped Cruz to two strong showings while maintaining the highest cash on hand of any campaign.
Targeting high propensity voters, Cruz’s campaign chairman Chad Sweet said of the usual GOP tactic, was “campaign 101.” The real key to Cruz’s strategy, and the “harder part,” is the use of data analytics to identify new voters, especially those who might have been “disenchanted in the past,” and getting the message to them in a “tailored way.”
“Identify[ing] the low propensity voters who other campaigns are ignoring,” and “tailoring issues and how they think about those issues,” has been key to Cruz’s success thus far.
And clearly, will continue to be key.
Cruz, in recent days, has signaled an intention to make a play for Florida. He’s opened ten campaign offices around the state, and all expectations are that he will make a play for voters in those areas, with a concentration on voters in the northern and rural parts of the vote—which Rubio doesn’t seem to believe he can win.
A quote from Super Tuesday night, which was yet another disaster for Rubio, comes to mind.
The Northwest Florida Daily News, a Pensacola paper, said that “Rubio appeared to attempt to diminish ‘North Florida’ as a voting force” after a Fox News host noted that “Florida shares media markets with 19 counties in Alabama and Georgia and in those counties Trump beats you 50 percent to 16 percent.”
“Obviously these are important counties and great people that live in those counties, but you’re talking about North Florida, not heavily populated areas,” Rubio said, adding that “the bulk of the vote comes from the I-4 corridor, Southwest Florida and, of course, my home area of Miami and even up into Jacksonville.”
So Rubio’s Florida strategy is not predicated on appeal throughout the state. (This is probably just as well given that his favorability rating is -24 in a recent Public Policy Polling poll.) It’s targeted to appeal to very specific demographics that are anomalous in the GOP base.
Rubio’s path to victory is blocked, and may never have been cleared. His ability to be a convention spoiler, which was no one’s goal when this started, is now being trumpeted as an acceptable outcome.
Marco Rubio is done. But establishment Florida Republicans will be the last to admit it. If he loses Florida, they lose face.
A.G. Gancarski covers Northeast Florida for FloridaPolitics.com.