Is Senator Marco Rubio running for president? Is that a stupid question? After all, there he was on stage last week in Las Vegas, speaking more than any candidate besides Cruz (he beat Trump!). He was, according to FiveThirtyEight, the most-attacked Republican candidate, too, which usually indicates frontrunner status. Except Marco Rubio isn’t a frontrunner in any poll, in any primary state; his popularity remains primarily theoretical. Is he actually doing anything to change that?
Marco Rubio was supposed to be the guy. He was supposed to be the palatable-to-the-grassroots electable conservative with multi-generational appeal. Once Jeb Bush faded, Marco Rubio was the de facto frontrunner—here’s Ross Douthat calling it for Rubio by process of elimination.
But! In the national poll average calculated by Huffington Post, Rubio has “surged” to around 10 percent support nationally—which is about where he was polling last spring, before the summer (and autumn, and now winter) of Trump. In a Quinnipiac poll released this morning, Rubio is at 12 percent, which is down from where he they had him at the beginning of the month.
Of course, the primary campaign is not a national election. It is a series of state contests, requiring a lot of retail politicking, voter outreach, and infrastructure-building in a few key early states. If Donald Trump turns out to be a paper tiger, his lack of a serious organization will likely be pointed to as his fatal flaw. In that event, the more traditional candidates—with more experienced campaign staffs—ought to be poised to take advantage.
But as 2015 crawls to an end, and with Iowa and New Hampshire weeks away, Marco Rubio is still un-poised.
The National Review’s Eliana Johnson and Tim Alberta reported on Rubio’s “paltry” Iowa presence earlier this month:
In recent conversations with nearly a dozen unaffiliated Iowa GOP veterans, a consensus has emerged across the party’s ideological spectrum: The state’s caucus-goers are interested in Rubio, but his infrequent appearances and paltry field operation leave lingering doubts as to whether he is interested in them.
Perhaps Rubio’s not interested in winning Iowa. The last two GOP nominees lost Iowa, but won New Hampshire. Maybe the Rubio campaign thinks it’s better to let Trump and Cruz fight over Iowa’s evangelicals and kooks, while Rubio definitively establishes himself as the mainstream nominee with a convincing victory among the more moderate voters of the Granite State.
Except Rubio’s New Hampshire organization isn’t actually any more impressive. Here’s James Pindell in the Boston Globe at the beginning of this month:
A review by the Globe found that Rubio’s staff remains small compared to other top campaigns. He has seven paid aides in New Hampshire — a size more in line with what struggling candidates have.
Other campaigns have double that number: Trump has 15 paid aides in the state, while Carson has 10. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush recently revealed he had increased the state staff to 20 people.
Bush is also opening four offices in the state for a total of five; Rubio has one.
Rubio’s New Hampshire strategy has worked quite well—for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who looked like he should have dropped out of the race in November, but is now sticking around because he’s suddenly polling above 10 percent in New Hampshire, making him essentially statistically tied with Rubio and Cruz. How did Christie pull it off? By spending all his time in the state. You know, campaigning.
What has Rubio been doing with his time, if not campaigning in early primary states? As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is fond of pointing out, would-be presidents also have to win the invisible primary, made up of party elites, whose endorsements tend to predict (or determine) each party’s nominees. Thus far, Jeb Bush still leads the GOP in endorsements (most of them came pretty early in the cycle), but Rubio has climbed to a respectable second place.
Though FiveThirtyEight’s rankings only count elected officials. Cruz has wrapped up the social conservative establishment—they all got together as a secret cabal and agreed to endorse him en masse—in yet another contest Rubio barely tried to compete in:
His answers drew an enthusiastic reaction, and Lane said the group was impressed by his comments on faith. But Lane questioned why Rubio “waited until 60 days before the caucuses” to reach out to Iowa pastors. Cruz, he said, has been working with the organization for more than a year.
Cross the evangelicals off the list. The rest of the GOP establishment? As NBC News’s Perry Bacon, Jr. explained earlier this month, they (Republican governors, members of Congress, and former candidates) are holding off, waiting, just like the rest of us, to figure out what will actually happen once the voting starts. Neither Rubio nor Bush have sealed the deal. And Rubio’s strategy isn’t inspiring much confidence:
Rubio’s aides have outlined a plan that is unorthodox. The Florida senator, through debates and other forums, will become the favorite candidate of some Republicans and someone nearly everyone in the party can accept. That will lead to victories in states, so far unnamed, and eventually the nomination.
Johnson and Alberta say, too, that Rubio is “running a different type of campaign, one that eschews spending on policy staffers, field operations, and other traditional aspects of a winning bid in favor of television advertising and digital outreach.”
The problem with that sort of campaign is that it isn’t one. It’s simply not a strategy that a person who wants to be president would choose to achieve that goal.
The superiority of field operations over “digital outreach” isn’t one of those hoary old campaign cliches beloved by out-of-touch old hacks: There is rigorous evidence supporting the (common-sense) idea that direct personal contact with potential voters is the single most consistently effective way to win campaigns. It’s commonplace (in the GOP, at least) to compare Marco Rubio, the young and charismatic one-term senator, with Barack Obama circa 2008, but Barack Obama’s revolutionary, Clinton-beating 2008 primary campaign was built around actual boots-on-the-ground organizing.
The idiocy of Rubio’s “plan” to “win” the nomination cannot be overstated: It’s not just untested; it’s more or less what a political scientist and a veteran campaign strategist would collaboratively design as a hypothetical worst-practices presidential campaign strategy.
So what is Marco Rubio actually doing? Does he just want to make a bunch of rich friends?
The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Karen Tumulty had a story Sunday, based on interviews with various “alarmed” Republicans who would very much like someone like Marco Rubio to be the next president, wondering why he hasn’t been trying to actually spend time with activists and voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. And it sounds like he just has other people he’d rather spend time with:
Rubio’s relative indifference toward wooing key activists contrasts with his eagerness to land top donors. His benefactors describe him as accessible and warm.
George Seay, a Dallas-based investment manager and top Rubio donor, first got to know him at an intimate 2009 dinner while he was running for the Senate. Not long after Rubio arrived in Washington, the pair took a 45-minute stroll from his Senate office building to a local Catholic church, where Rubio was going to attend midday Mass. They talked about family and their lives outside work.
“It was the most relaxed, down-to-earth, low-key, get-to-know-you kind of visit I’ve probably ever had with a senator I didn’t know very well,” Seay said.
After Seay got married earlier this year, he even received a handwritten congratulatory note from Rubio. That gesture caught Seay by surprise, because, as he explained, “I didn’t tell him I was getting married.”
Rank-and-file voters need to see that side of him, too, other Rubio backers say.
Rank-and-file voters would presumably get to see that side of Marco Rubio if they had anything to offer him that he wanted.
Marco Rubio seems to like participating in debates. He seems to like going on television. He especially seems to enjoy meeting the GOP donor class. Marco Rubio’s favorite thing about being in elected office might simply be proximity to money, and the people who have a lot of it.
If that’s the case, it’s been true at least since he first achieved actual power, as speaker of the Florida House, as McKay Coppins recounts in his recent book, The Wilderness:
The suddenness of Rubio’s ascent—combined with his piles of law school debt and continually tight personal finances—let him to indulge joyously in the perks available to a person in his position. He watched his beloved Miami Dolphins from box seats belonging to professional influence peddlers. He made liberal use of the Florida Republican Party’s credit card. And as a new Speaker, he was astonished by how easily someone in his role could cash in.
“It’s amazing,” Rubio marveled to a friend at the time. “I can call up a lobbyist at four in the morning, and he’ll meet me anywhere with a bag of forty thousand dollars in cash.”
Rubio, alas, was term-limited out of that office. Within months, despite his friends and allies suggesting he wait for some other office to open up, Rubio would—almost impulsively—decide to run for U.S. Senate, against the then-popular then-Republican governor Charlie Crist.
And now Marco Rubio, who hates being in the U.S. Senate, is running, he claims, for president. He just can’t really articulate why.
Ted Cruz is a guy who wants it so bad you can smell it through your television screen. Jeb Bush is going to fight until the bitter end because he’d rather die than disappoint his parents. Donald Trump is going to stick around to prove a point, or at least until he has to start spending much of his own money. Marco Rubio’s primary guiding principle, as a politician, seems to be a desire to spend more time in the owner’s box at Sun Life Stadium.
I don’t know who’ll win, but I know which one I’d bet against.