Despite A Surge, Rubio’s Path To The Nomination Remains Perilous

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Everyone‘s buzzing about Marco Rubio these days. The latest round of national polling places him in the top-tier with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson. One poll even has him leading the entire field at 14 percent. Rubio’s undeniably charismatic, and his speeches are downright inspirational. He has the highest net favorability rating of any GOP candidate and presents a compelling “generational” argument that not only sets him apart from Hillary Clinton – but from Jeb Bush, too.

But the buzz about Rubio shouldn’t obscure the fact that his path to the nomination is perilous.

The reason? He’s counting on a strategy that has proven nothing short of disastrous in the past: Skip the early GOP contests and bank on generating momentum with an upset victory in the first big primary, South Carolina, followed by second breakthrough in Florida.

Sound familiar? It should. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich tried this same approach in 2012, and what happened? Surging in the polls, Gingrich pulled off a stunning upset in the Palmetto State that briefly shook the confidence of Mitt Romney, who had previously earned back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and appeared to be steam-rolling toward the nomination.

But the Gingrich “surge” proved remarkably short-lived. In a state where television advertising counts for far more than glad-handing and personal appearances, Romney tapped his huge war chest to strategic advantage. He outspent his opponent by 10-1 in a blistering “air war” that featured non-stop negative attacks on Gingrich’s record. Gingrich, despite his early poll advantage in Florida, crumbled, and soon pulled out of the race altogether.

And remember former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s abortive 2008 campaign? He was also way ahead in the polls and enjoyed a huge money advantage over the rest of the field. But he wrote off the early contests – including South Carolina – and waited until Florida to begin his campaign in earnest. By the time he did, John McCain and conservative upstart Mike Huckabee were completely dominating the field. Giuliani thought the contest would wait for him; instead it simply passed him by.

Rubio, arguably, is in a far stronger position than either Giuliani or Gingrich was. Giuliani was staunchly opposed by social conservatives (one reason he skipped Iowa), and Gingrich had no chance of winning significant support from the GOP party establishment, which despised him. By contrast, Rubio has energized base voters and is making a bid for support from establishment donors, who have leaned heavily toward Bush, but are beginning to entertain doubts about the two-term former Florida governor.

But Rubio’s making the same mistake that Gingrich and Giuliani did: He is all but writing off Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving the field to other candidates. And they’re quickly filling the void. A month ago Rubio was at 12 percent in Iowa, solidly in the second-tier. Now he’s at 6 percent behind Huckabee and Carson. A similar fate awaits him in New Hampshire, where he’s still close to the top tier, but without additional investments, probably won’t be for long.

And what about Rubio’s supposed “stranglehold” in South Carolina? It certainly hasn’t materialized yet. In the last poll conducted nearly two months ago, Rubio, with a paltry 4 percent, was trailing Bush and Walker badly. And the recent entry of South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham – the state’s Native Son — into the GOP race, can only dampen enthusiasm for Rubio, at least in the short-term. The bottom line? If Rubio truly has the advantage attributed to him in the Palmetto State, one would expect to see some evidence of it  – but it’s still nowhere to be found.

And that leaves Florida, where Bush reportedly has a lock on most of the state’s organizational talent and still enjoys a huge lead in fundraising. Even uncommitted donors are not simply Rubio’s to lose. With Bush’s huge money advantage, Rubio could well find himself facing the kind of devastating air war that Gingrich did.  And Bush will likely arrive at the March 15 primary having already beaten out Rubio in Iowa and New Hampshire, giving him far more campaign momentum.

None of this is to suggest that the current fanfare surrounding Rubio is misplaced. He’s been a rising star ever since he won his Senate seat in 2010 and he’s no longer simply a “dark horse” candidate in 2016. But his current late-primary strategy is unlikely to propel him to victory. In addition to Florida, he also faces major challenges in the evangelical Deep South where Mike Huckabee, Carson, or Santorum – or possibly Walker, if he wins Iowa – will likely prevail. Unless Rubio decides to invest heavily in New Hampshire, and can at least walk away from the two early contests with a strong third- or fourth-place showing, he is likely to arrive in South Carolina with far more to prove than his rivals.

Without a strong showing in Iowa or New Hampshire, don’t expect Rubio to walk away with a commanding victory in South Carolina.  And if he loses Florida to Bush, his campaign is all but over. He might still end up with a spot on the ticket – but it won’t be at the top.