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Voters Don’t Love Rubio the Way Elites Do

Donald Trump appears to have won all 50 delegates in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary, but this hasn’t stopped certain pundits from proclaiming Marco Rubio the real story. Rubio took second place with just .2 percent more of the vote than Ted Cruz received. While Cruz was supposed to have an advantage given the state’s large evangelical vote, Rubio had the endorsements of key figures in the state’s political establishment, notably Governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. That Trump beat both of his main rivals anyway, and that neither of those rivals decisively beat the other, is a testament to Trump’s success. This was a tougher test than he’d faced in New Hampshire, and he passed.

Jeb Bush did not—and so he dropped out. In 2000, his brother had used South Carolina as a firewall against John McCain—who had won New Hampshire—by uniting the evangelical and establishment vote behind that year’s Bush. And in 1996, South Carolina helped save Bob Dole from Pat Buchanan—another indication of power of the establishment in the Palmetto State. This year the establishment was divided between Rubio and Bush (who had the endorsement of South Carolina’s other senator, Lindsey Graham). But then the right was divided between Trump and Cruz. (John Kasich and Ben Carson, each of whom received about 7 percent of the vote, also contributed to the fragmentation.)

Cruz has grounds for complaint about the way Rubio has been anointed by the media. Consider: if Rubio had finished .2 percent behind Cruz, instead of .2 percent head of him, would any of the pundits now calling Rubio a winner have changed their tune? The nice thing about being the insiders’ favorite is that it doesn’t matter whether you finish second or third—you’re still on top.

Conventional wisdom now has it that Rubio will vault ahead by soaking up Bush’s support. But wait a minute: what support? If Rubio had received every vote that went to Bush in South Carolina, Trump would still have won. And Bush’s support in South Carolina, where he spent millions and flew in his brother to stump for him, was greatly inflated relative to his support just about anywhere else. In the only February poll of Georgia, one of a dozen states that will vote March 1 [1], Bush was at 3 percent. In Arkansas, he was at 1 percent. Even in Virginia—a swing state where Rubio is within striking distance of Trump—adding Bush’s 4 percent to Rubio’s 22 doesn’t beat Trump’s 28. (And in Virginia, Kasich has been polling ahead of Bush. At least some Bush voters are likely to opt for Kasich over Rubio.)

Rubio is picking up additional donors and endorsements as he becomes the establishment’s consensus choice—but then, all of Bush’s once overwhelming financial backing and his anointment by the establishment and media a year ago didn’t do him much good in the end. (I too thought Bush would be a juggernaut with all that behind him: I was wrong.) Yes, such things are better to have than not to have, as are the votes Rubio will reap from Bush’s departure. But these are marginal gains: they don’t transform the race.

The primaries on March 1, however, really will be transformative, and in complicated ways. Each of the three prime contenders for the nomination—Trump, Cruz, Rubio—will have something to brag about on March 2. Cruz should handily win Texas and ought to have a shot in Oklahoma as well. Rubio can win Minnesota; he’s a plausible candidate for Tim Pawlenty voters, just as he is assuredly the candidate of the Tim Pawlenty pundits who hyped the Gopher State governor’s chances in 2012. Virginia is in play for Rubio, and Colorado as well. Trump faces a new challenge in having to campaign in several places at once—he’s proven he can win states like New Hampshire and states like South Carolina, but can he win Massachusetts and Georgia on the same day, while fighting elsewhere as well? In some of the Super Tuesday contests, the fact that Ben Carson is still in the race may prove more significant than Jeb Bush’s dropping out. If Carson draws large enough percentages of evangelicals, he can make the difference between a Cruz victory or a Trump victory—or in Colorado especially, a Rubio victory against both of them.

Kasich has little chance of winning anywhere on March 1, but a few respectable second- or third-place showings should keep his campaign alive long enough to score its first victory—a delegate-rich one—when Ohio votes on March 15. That same day, Florida will be a make-or-break for Rubio: if he loses to Trump (or Cruz) in his home state, it’s hard to see what his argument is for remaining a viable prospect for the nomination. If Rubio wins Florida, however, he’ll not only have a weighty delegate bloc, he’ll have made a prima facie case for his strength in the general election. Indeed, for all the factiousness of the Republican contest, the fact that the GOP has candidates who may hold special appeal for the battleground states of Ohio and Florida in November must be a source of comfort. And notably, Rubio and Kasich are the Republicans who poll best against Hillary Clinton in hypothetical general-election match-ups.

But it’s a long way yet until November, or even the GOP convention in July. And if Trump has disrupted Republican politics so profoundly—ending, for now, the Bush dynasty and defying all pundits’ expectations—who’s to say he can’t also rip up the playbook in a general election? As for Cruz, he’s the one rival to beat Trump so far, and he’s beaten Rubio more often than not. (Again, imagine how different press coverage would be if Rubio, rather than Cruz, had finished third in New Hampshire.)

After Iowa, I predicted [2] that the Republican establishment, movement conservatives, and a superficial media would concoct a narrative that would help make Rubio the nominee. Just as the Trump phenomenon itself has been media driven, or was at the start, a media-driven Rubio storyline could do wonders for the Florida senator. (The money and organizational resources that come with being the establishment’s pick are also nothing to scoff at, however inadequate they proved to be for Jeb Bush.) Only Rubio’s disastrous debate performance before New Hampshire and his fifth-place finish in that first primary made it impossible to stick to the story.

Now it’s back. And I still think this elite bias in his favor is one of Rubio’s strongest assets. But there’s a difference between acknowledging that hype matters and actually believing it. Based only on the outcomes so far, Trump is the solid frontrunner and Cruz, not Rubio, is his nearest rival. That might change a week from Tuesday, but it’s what voters up to now—not the pundits—have decided.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Voters Don’t Love Rubio the Way Elites Do"

#1 Comment By Lee On February 21, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

Kasich is the ONLY sane choice left in the field. Cruz? a third of Republicans question the Canadian. Rubio, well I’m sure the establishment is slap happy with the prospects of “foam” parties and zip up boots.

Neither Cruz or Rubio’s resumes measure up to Kasich. Bring on the clowns!

#2 Comment By Rambler89 On February 22, 2016 @ 12:53 am

I sure hope Minnesota doesn’t give Rubio his first victory (much less his only one). I live there, and it would be awfully embarrassing. It might well not happen. Especially in these weird times, one shouldn’t underestimate the potential electoral weirdness of Minnesota.

In 1998, the state elected independent Jesse Ventura as governor over two extremely unprepossessing major-party candidates. In how many other states, in recent decades, could an independent gubernatorial candidate ever win, under any circumstances?

In 2010, Minnesota put Tea-Party Republican flake Tom Emmer within 9000 votes of defeating incumbent Democrat Mark Dayton, surprising even the Republicans. This was after Emmer, in an upset, defeated a respectable mainstream Republican favorite for the nomination.

Pawlenty, on the other hand, is by no means the quintessential Minnesota candidate. He was just a notch better than the alternatives, and people here know that, even those who wish he was still governor, given Dayton as the only alternative. There was never much real enthusiasm here for Pawlenty. (Back when he was being talked about for President, he was honest enough to admit that he couldn’t be sure of carrying his home state in a general election. He only narrowly won his second term as governor.)

Populism can do strange things in the Midwest, especially when the people have been ignored and shafted for many years (and corn prices are low). Greenback Party, anyone?

#3 Comment By bacon On February 22, 2016 @ 2:27 am

The Republicans get to their convention without a nominee. Trump, Rubio, Cruz are still in the race, maybe Kasich and Carson, but no clear winner or even close to a clear winner. A giant, public mud wrestling event follows, in the middle of which some adult says “hey, call Jeb! and see if he’s available”. Hillary has a heart attack.

I’m considering a new career in fantasy screenwriting.

#4 Comment By Rossbach On February 22, 2016 @ 10:41 am

“And I still think this elite bias in his favor is one of Rubio’s strongest assets. ”

It may be his strongest asset in the view of the RNC and the donors, but it is his greatest single liability with GOP voters.

#5 Comment By KD On February 22, 2016 @ 11:18 am

I heard Very Serious Person Rubio’s speech, and I took the following it away:

1.) Reagan good! [Bell rings, audience salivates.]

2.) No Donor left behind!

3.) Trump is mean, and mean people suck.

4.) I love everyone, especially the little people, even though it seems that every policy position I stand for is consistent with the legislative agenda of every business lobbyist in Washington.

He seems like he could be cast as a pleasant-seeming android in the next remake of Aliens. . .

#6 Comment By Scott Lahti On February 22, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

“Voters Don’t Love Rubio the Way Elites Do”

And who better to be reminded of in the title to a blog post about the Senator, Jr.® (for topical comic relief of minor aches and campaigns; Police use as directed.) from Florida than [3], whose stirringly, surreally [4] would alone secure his place among the lapidary lounge-lizard immortals?

“I too thought Bush would be a juggernaut with all that behind him: I was wrong.”

A becoming humility. And as one, like the GOP frontrunner, with more humility under my belt, and with more, or rather less, therein about which to be humble, if you know what I mean – again, like the GOP frontrunner, or so I have read in the first-floor second stall of Trump Tower – than all my close-polling, poll-closing rivals (aka “losers”) combined, I know that by which I squeak.

“Indeed, for all the factiousness of the Republican contest”

Did Dan mean: for all the facetiousness – after The Google, my sixth drink (♫ Of The Morning, Sixth Drink … ♫), and, at first reading, my own eyes.

“As for Cruz, he’s the one rival to beat Trump so far, and he’s beaten Rubio more often than not.”

As have others for whom he makes it all too easy, in the immemorial how-come-you-keep-slapping-yourself manner, or after the stock big brother from pre-1960 comedy, leaning jauntily cross-legged against the kitchen counter in distracted munching of an apple, his palm flush upon brother Senator, Jr.®’s forehead as the latter beats his babyfists furiously against the dead air.

#7 Comment By Clint On February 22, 2016 @ 4:04 pm

It’s been pointed out that the mainstream media thought that covering and exposing Trump would render Trump unelectable, while drawing to the mainstream media more of an audience.

Now, that their first agenda failed, the mainstream media can still take some comfort in the increased audience Trump draws.

#8 Comment By Just Dropping By On February 22, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

@KD: But, wait, don’t the androids in the Alien films inevitably betray the heroes in service of their faceless corporate masters?

#9 Comment By bt On February 22, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

Rubio is really not ready for prime time, even his advisers have as much as admitted it.

Cruz is just weird.

If/when those Cruz or Rubio votes go somewhere else, it will be the Donald. Especially the Cruz votes.

I’ve been waiting for the sane to coalesce around Kasich for literally the entire season. It’s not gong to happen.

Trump is going to be the nominee.

On the plus side Trump has stated out loud that the Iraq War was a catastrophe. On that one point alone he deserves a special medal for honesty. I can’t wait to hear his opinions on Israel/Palestine.

#10 Comment By Avi Marranazo On February 22, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

True conservatives, especially those inclined toward patriotic immigration reform, need to recognize that Trump is the first step toward addressing the only issue that matters for now: slowing and eventually stopping the Thirdworldification of the USA.

#11 Comment By Scott Lahti On February 22, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

“Trump is the first step toward addressing the only issue that matters for now: slowing and eventually stopping the Thirdworldification of the USA.”

At which point I stopped reading the comment, Googled its poster from the fascist fever swamps from whence it issued and, after wiping him from the bottom of my stylish new jackboots, thanked him for saving me time on future threads I’d have otherwise never gotten back.

#12 Comment By Adam Rosenthal On February 24, 2016 @ 12:36 am

“At which point I stopped reading the comment…”

You didn’t really have a choice as it stopped there.