Even before Wednesday night’s debate, if you asked most right-of-center columnists in the Beltway who they thought would be the Republican presidential nominee, you would have most likely heard the name “Marco Rubio” mentioned quite a bit.
Perhaps this group of “elite” Washington pundits, myself included, are woefully out of touch with Republican voters. It’s not inconceivable. After all, very few — if any — of us predicted Donald Trump would actually get in the presidential race, much less be leading in the polls more than three months in.
But with that caveat aside, Rubio seems to have what it takes to be the last man standing. Here are several reasons why:
1.) He Bridges the “Grassroots Conservative-Republican Establishment” Divide
Rubio may be the only real contender for the nomination who bridges the divide between grassroots conservatives and that group often derisively referred to as the “Republican establishment.” The only other contender in the race who could claim to do that is Carly Fiorina, but she wasn’t able to maintain her bounce after the second Republican debate and it’s hard to see her path to the nomination.
Rubio came to the Senate through a fight with the Florida Republican establishment. He challenged a sitting Republican governor in the Senate primary, and with the help of the grassroots tea party wave of 2010, wiped the floor with him. In the Senate, he holds a 93 percent rating from the very anti-establishment Heritage Action, ranking him the fifth most conservative senator.
At the same time, far from being viewed as a threat to whatever exactly composes the much-feared “Republican establishment,” he is embraced by it. I am not a big fan of the “Republican establishment” label because it’s a bit ill-defined, but if we take it to mean Beltway Republican operatives and segments of the donor class, there is no question Rubio has a lot of support there, even if it has not yet manifested itself in boatloads of money.
So while many writers are now saying Rubio could supplant Jeb Bush in the so-called “establishment lane” for the nomination, the reality is Rubio has his feet in both the establishment and the conservative grassroots — and what’s more, he has been able to successfully straddle that divide for some time. That seems to be a huge plus in his favor.
2.) He Doesn’t Turn Off Many Segments Of The Republican Base
Though some in the conservative grassroots point to Rubio’s participation in the Gang of Eight immigration bill as disqualifying, polls suggest that those who hold that view are at this point very few. When Republicans are asked what candidates they could never cast a ballot for, Rubio consistently places near the very bottom, with only Ben Carson usually besting him.
After Wednesday’s debate, the Independent Journal conducted a poll using Google Consumer Surveys asking Republicans which GOP contender should drop out next, and Rubio got selected by the fewest number of respondents. Only 2.2 percent said he should drop out, compared to 23.7 percent for Bush, who had the dubious distinction of leading the poll.
So, in short, Rubio’s ceiling seems rather high.
3.) He’s Done His Homework
Then there is the matter of Rubio’s substance. In a field of very accomplished Republicans, Rubio stands out as among the most prepared to discuss almost any issue. This is particularly true of foreign policy, where Rubio has distinguished himself as among the most knowledge top-tier candidates, if not “the” most knowledgeable. Just look at how he predicted exactly what Russia would do in Syria during the second Republican debate. Or read his extremely substantive foreign policy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.
Now he isn’t the only substantive contender — Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, among others, are also pretty substantive. But it’s clear he is not improvising his run for president like a few of the candidates in the race. He’s taken the process very seriously and has done his homework. And it shows.
4.) A Pure Political Talent
Simply put, Rubio has the most pure political talent of anyone running for the White House, Republican or Democrat. He is far and away the best speaker and has a real ability to inspire.
He’s also pretty unflappable. Unlike many of his rivals, Rubio hasn’t really made any gaffes on the campaign trail. He answers questions fluidly and responds to attacks against him with ease. Just look how he put Bush in his place during Wednesday’s Republican debate when the struggling former front-runner went after him.
To those four reasons, you could also add that Rubio is the Republican contender most in touch with modern American culture, that his message about the need for generational change resonates and the fact that he may well be the most threatening candidate to Hillary Clinton, with polls showing him topping her by a large margin in important swing states. All this may be why it isn’t just Washington pundits who view Rubio as best positioned to win the nomination anymore. Betting markets now place him as the most likely Republican nominee.
Of course, just because Rubio may be the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, it doesn’t mean that he will win it. There’s a lot of good candidates still in the race and many things can obviously happen. Donald Trump, for instance, is not only not going away, he seems to be only getting better as a campaigner. Ted Cruz has run a phenomenal campaign so far himself and seems to have a pretty compelling electoral strategy. Some unforeseen skeleton in Rubio’s closet could also emerge and shake up his candidacy. There is still a lot of time left for the dynamics of the race to change.
But as of now, Rubio appears to me to be the most likely to win the nomination, even if his poll numbers don’t yet show it.