It’s looking increasingly like [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] is in real danger of an embarrassing primary loss in his home state of Florida on Tuesday. The press seems to have decided he’s finished. That’s the narrative, and narratives are hard to overcome.
Rubio needs to have a big debate tonight. But even if he pulls off a victory on Tuesday, the fact remains that Rubio’s campaign has not met expectations. It occurs to me that there were five fundamental problems that caused this talented candidate to be in grave danger of an imminent, and humiliating, exodus:
1. Immigration reform. Rubio’s championing of immigration reform was a profile in courage. It was also strategically stupid. Rubio should have instead taken a page from Barack Obama, who gave good speeches but avoided becoming embroiled in this kind of messy and controversial legislation. (I realize that exit polls suggest “amnesty” is not a top priority for most primary voters. I don’t know what to do with that information, except to note that it doesn’t jibe with everything I’ve seen.) It would have been smarter for Rubio to not have stuck his neck out (yes, this is a sad commentary on the state of our politics).
2. A campaign not as good as the candidate. Sometimes talented people make it to the show solely on their talent, but sometimes this teaches them the wrong lessons. The things that make us great can also bring about our downfall. For example, RG3 arguably flamed out in Washington because his speed suddenly wasn’t enough in the NFL. We are always tempted to keep doing the thing that has worked in the past. In the case of RG3, the thing that worked so well in college—being the most talented individual on the field—wasn’t enough. Rubio, I think faced the same dilemma.
Rubio’s team, like their candidate, excels at messaging and communications. But they never really seemed to be that good at logistics or organizing. When you’re running for the U.S. Senate, talent, alone, might be good enough. But this is the NFL. Yes, Rubio’s campaign should have been premised on utilizing Rubio’s unique skill as a communicator, but they should also have been building a stronger campaign ground game.
3. The New Hampshire debate. It would be hard to overestimate how damaging the debate heading into New Hampshire was for Rubio. He was surging at that point, and the stumble very likely cost him a second-place finish (and allowed John Kasich to finish second). If that doesn’t happen, it’s possible that Kasich and Jeb join Chris Christie in exiting the race, thereby causing the “establishment” lane to coalesce around Rubio. Rubio would then go to South Carolina and potentially win the state. This is all hypothetical, but within the realm of possibility.
4. The zeitgeist. The fundamental problem Rubio faces is that he is the most optimistic and aspirational candidate in an era of fear and loathing. Simply put, the public isn’t buying what he’s selling. People are angry and frustrated, and Donald Trump is much better suited for the times. Even if Rubio had done everything right, it would have still been hard to overcome a political environment that didn’t allow him to play to his strengths.
5. Stooping to Trump’s level. Because the public (and media) are rewarding Trump’s behavior over serious or uplifting rhetoric, Team Rubio decided to take a page from Trump’s playbook. I don’t fault them for trying this. But it clearly didn’t work. Rubio now even concedes that even he regrets it.
As always, there are numerous variables and explanations, but I think these five things explain most of what went wrong for Marco Rubio in 2016. If he loses Florida on Tuesday, it will be an amazing fall from grace.