When I arrived in New Hampshire two Thursdays ago, Marco Rubio was ascendant. After finishing a strong third in Iowa — only narrowly behind Trump — Rubio had surged into second place in virtually every New Hampshire poll. Rallies were jam packed with adoring supporters, and the media was prepared to anoint Marco the establishment candidate. Jeb Bush — whose Super PAC, Right to Rise, has spent $22 million in campaign funds gifted him by his father’s friend’s relentlessly and desperately attacking Rubio — was struggling to convince voters he had the energy, much less the experience, to be President of the United States. Most national voters probably didn’t know who Jon Kasich was. As for Chris Christie … well, many liked him, few were prepared to vote for him.
And then the New Hampshire debate happened. Executing a (I think flawed) communications strategy — when attacked, attack Obama rather than criticize the attacker — Rubio walked right into the trap laid for him by Chris Christie. The results are by now well known, and for the media, the narrative proved irresistible. Literally overnight, the once charismatic and polished young Senator became a programmed machine unable to think for himself. The 25 second debate clip played in an endless loop on cable news channels for the next three days. Bush and Christie went out and relentlessly fanned the flames at rallies around New Hampshire.
Suddenly, Marco finished “fifth” (in reality, he received the exact same number of delegates — three — as Cruz and Bush), and the sky was officially falling. My candid reaction to the scene unfolding before me on the giant screen in the Manchester Radisson was chronicled for posterity by a reporter for MSNBC:
“Jeb Golinkin, a 28-year-old Rubio volunteer from Houston with a “Marco 2016” button on his North Face jacket, finally broke the silence with an obscenity of his own.”
Guilty as charged. Like every Rubio supporter, I was frustrated. But, as I explained to the CBC (and MSNBC, although, shockingly, only my off the record remarks made it into print), the fifth place finish was hardly grounds for panic:
“It’s not the end of the world but there was opportunity here to put away some of the establishment support and break away and be the guy. It was a missed opportunity.”
The media reaction was decidedly less circumspect. Suddenly, those that were prepared to anoint the young Senator “King of the Establishment” were openly questioning whether Senator Rubio was “dead.” This was, plainly, ridiculous, but hysterical assertions have a way of hardening into something like truth when frequently repeated on television. For that reason, Rubio badly needed to perform well in Saturday night’s South Carolina debate.
He did. In a debate that was anything but scripted, Rubio again — as Rush Limbaugh has described it — “ran rings around everyone on foreign policy.” Rubio also dramatically called out Ted Cruz for his propensity to shade the truth and came to Jeb Bush’s defense by forcefully rebuking Donald Trump’s hysterical allegations that George Bush did not keep America safe.
The reaction to Rubio’s performance was almost universally positive. CBS post-debate survey of viewers found that Rubio ran away with the night. As importantly, though, the contrast with Jeb’s performance was stark. While many in the pundit class — myself included — thought Jeb had a decent night, the CBS’ post-debate survey results revealed (yet again) that Bush simply does not inspire any real passion in voters. Whereas 32 percent of Republican and independent voters believed Rubio won the night — besting Trump by eight points — only five percent of viewers said Jeb Bush won. To put this in perspective, 8 percent thought Ben Carson — who spent most of the night complaining and telling people to visit his website — won the debate.
Ultimately, the contest to be the Republican nominee will come down to a contest between three candidates: Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. For Rubio, the issue has always been creating enough separation that Bush felt compelled to drop out. This was the opportunity lost in New Hampshire, where absent his poor debate performance, he likely would have finished second and knocked Bush out once and for all. But even at Rubio’s weakest moment in New Hampshire, Bush failed to show any spark. For all of the talk about Bush’s “resurgent” campaign, Bush merely managed to tie Rubio in the state on which he bet his candidacy despite spending astounding $36.1 million in New Hampshire — more than twice what Christie spent, who spent the second most in the Granite State.
That Bush’s numbers were flat in New Hampshire despite all of the attention his last name and money have purchased him should come as no surprise. As of this writing, the RealClearPolitics National Average shows Bush polling at 4 percent, behind both Carson and Kasich. Conversely, Rubio is in a strong third with 20.3 percent, only 0.7 percent behind Cruz and within ten points of Trump. Bush has likewise failed to capture any discernable momentum in South Carolina. The latest poll shows Rubio running a solid third, nine points ahead of Bush (who is in fifth).
Perhaps George W. Bush’s support will be worth a double digit jump in South Carolina and Bush will defeat Rubio in the Palmetto state. Stranger things have happened. But if he does not surge in South Carolina, Bush’s major financial supporters have a choice to make: continue to support Bush, or quickly consolidate behind Rubio. If Jeb’s donors choose the latter option, Bush will likely drop out and Rubio will have a chance to outperform Trump and Cruz on super-Tuesday and beyond. If Jeb’s donors stay silent, though, Jeb will stay in the race and Trump and Cruz will likely dominate on Super-Tuesday, dealing Rubio a blow from which he may never be able to recover. Whatever they decide, though, the time for choosing is about to be upon Jeb’s donors. The fate of the country may well depend on how they respond.
Jeb Golinkin is an attorney in Houston, TX and a contributing writer to TheWeek.com.