The polling in Florida continues to look grim for Rubio, whose numbers in the RCP average have been dropping over the last week. Trump almost has a 19-point lead in the average, and according to multiple polls he now also has a substantial lead in the early vote. Barring a massive polling failure on par with the Democratic race in Michigan, Trump will win Florida, and he seems likely to win by double digits. That’s not really a surprise, since Trump has consistently led polling in Florida for more than half a year. In fact, Trump hasn’t trailed in a single public poll in the state since July. Since the fall, the lowest support Trump registered in the state was just under 25%, which is higher than almost all of Rubio’s polling in that same period. Were it not for profound denial about Trump’s status as the front-runner and repeated bouts of Rubiomania in the media, no one would have pretended that anything other than a Trump win was likely.
Today marks the end of the road for Rubio’s presidential campaign, but the more remarkable thing is that it probably signals the end of his national political career. The rising star that Republican elites and pundits continually touted as a future leader of the party won’t be running for re-election. He will be out of the Senate in ten months. He doesn’t seem likely to win any other statewide election in Florida anytime soon. There will be a gubernatorial election in Florida in two years, but it’s hard to imagine that Florida Republicans will get behind him after unceremoniously kicking him to the curb in the presidential primary. No doubt Rubio could find some sinecure at a hawkish think tank or a lobbying firm if he wants one, so Washington probably won’t be rid of him entirely, but his ability to influence and shape the party’s debates on foreign policy and other issues at a national level will be significantly reduced. Considering his baleful influence and reckless contributions to those debates, especially on foreign policy, this is undoubtedly a good thing for the GOP and for the country.
Rubio was also very badly-served by his fans and advisers. They not only bought into the hype surrounding his candidacy, but they helped to keep him blind to his weaknesses and encouraged him in a doomed campaign strategy. Rubio wasn’t going to win the nomination this year no matter how he campaigned, but relying so heavily on TV ads and debate appearances was the wrong thing to do. It was no substitute for campaign organization and meeting with voters, and Rubio discovered this the hard way. The entire campaign reinforced the image of Rubio as the entitled and overconfident career politician, and there was little in his record to make voters see him as something else. The GOP has a bad habit of trying to promote its newest political talent too quickly, and in this case they worked so hard to promote Rubio that he will now be out of politics all together.
Critics have often compared Rubio to John Edwards, and there is some merit to that comparison, but in many respects his candidacy had more in common with the McCain 2000 campaign or Lieberman’s ill-fated 2004 effort. Like McCain, he was a media-driven candidate who depended on positive media coverage to stay afloat, and perhaps because he was so dependent on media boosterism he couldn’t close the deal with most Republican voters. He was also the neoconservatives’ favorite in the race just as McCain was back then, and that association did him no favors.
Like Lieberman, he thought of himself as a natural party leader, but had badly compromised himself in the eyes of his own party by identifying himself with a controversial policy supported by a president from the other side of the aisle. Despite being in line with his party on most issues, Rubio sabotaged his political future with his push for the Gang of Eight immigration legislation in much the same way that Lieberman made himself persona non grata with Democrats for his support for the Iraq war. Rubio has done his best to try to run away from that part of his record, but he hasn’t been able to escape it. He made the mistake of believing party elites and pundits when they said that he could save the party by pushing for immigration “reform,” and that decision eventually led to the end of his political career. Inasmuch as Rubio betrayed his voters by pursuing an amnesty bill after he said he would oppose it, that is a fitting and good outcome.
Rubio’s hard-line foreign policy was also a liability for him, and I think that did hurt him at the margins with Republican voters. Most Republican voters have no problem with hawkishness, but Rubio displayed stubborn, ideological fanaticism a little too often. It wasn’t the main reason that he lost, but it made other candidates seem more reasonable and responsible by comparison, and it showed that he was ultimately little more than the hard-liners’ factional candidate. In the end, there wasn’t much of a Republican constituency for unreconstructed “invade the world, invite the world” Bushism, and that’s an encouraging sign.
The GOP has myriad problems, and it will continue to have them for years to come, but the fact that most Republican voters didn’t buy into the revival of Bushism Rubio was offering suggests that things might eventually improve.