The Rubio Pundits Imagine Is Not the Rubio Voters See

The arguments for Marco Rubio assume that voters won’t pay attention to what he actually says.

Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

This website has been skeptical of Marco Rubio’s candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination from the start. When he announced in April of last year, we wrote that it was unclear how he stood out in a crowded field.

Nine months later, despite several candidates having dropped out, we still don’t see it.

Rubio is polling in third place in Iowa, behind his fellow senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, and property tycoon Donald Trump.

In April — before Trump entered the race — we said Cruz was more likely to appeal to evangelicals and tea party voters who are overrepresented in the first voting state. That is still the case.

In New Hampshire, Rubio polls no better than Cruz and is tied with Jeb Bush and John Kasich, both of whom look like better candidates for moderately conservative voters who want a president who can govern rather than preach.

Given Rubio’s consistently low poll ratings — he has hovered around 10 percent in the RealClearPolitics average from the start — it is rather uncanny how much of the political commentariat seems determined to declare him the logical choice.

The case for Rubio

David Wasserman makes the case for Rubio as best as anyone probably can at FiveThirtyEight, arguing that only he stands a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November “by broadening [his] party’s appeal with moderates, Millennials and Latinos.”

That has been the argument since Rubio announced. If there is any truth in it, though, it may have more to do with Clinton’s weaknesses than Rubio’s strengths.

Wasserman doubts that Clinton could match Barack Obama’s 71-percent support from Latino voters “against a Spanish-speaking son of immigrants who supported a bipartisan immigration reform bill.”

But it’s unclear why, except for his last name, Hispanics who care more about immigration policy than other Americans do should support Rubio. As Daniel Berman writes at The Restless Realist, he went out of his way in Thursday’s Fox New debate “to deny he ever supported immigration reform even when confronted with video evidence.”

Moreover, it seems to Berman that Rubio’s entire campaign strategy is now “to try and accuse Ted Cruz of all people of being soft” on immigration.

Young and optimistic

Wasserman similarly finds it hard to imagine Clinton matching Obama’s 60-percent support among 18-to-29-year-olds against a candidate two decades younger than she is.

But, again, it’s unclear what Rubio offers young voters other than his own (relative) youth.

Rubio’s economic plans are hardly imaginative. He proposes to cut taxes, regulations and spending — and is vaguest on the latter. Those were winning issues for Republicans in the 1980s, but it’s less clear if they could still sway young and middle-income voters today.

To Rubio’s credit, he does have a more thought-out plan for education reform which, if implemented, should help boost social mobility.

But that’s something he seldom mentions anymore. All the optimistic talk of opportunity in the twenty-first century that defined the start of Rubio’s campaign is now gone.

As Wasserman puts it, “Rubio has realized that he needs to be more confrontational to woo angry conservatives.”

Extremes

Wasserman doesn’t believe that Rubio has quite done or said anything in the process that “Democrats could use to flat-out disqualify him in the eyes of swing voters.”

We’re not so sure.

On foreign policy, Rubio has veered to such extremes that is hard to imagine him walking suggestions that Clinton and Obama deliberately weakened America because the Democrats don’t believe it should be a great power.

Rubio’s alarmism about Islamic terror harkens back to the frightful days after September 11, 2001. As does his insistence that either America or the terrorists win.

Such fearmongering is particularly off-putting to young voters for whom the Iraq debacle was a formative experience.

Wasserman may doubt that voters in their twenties will flock to a Democratic candidate old enough to be their grandmother, but why shouldn’t they?

Democrats have only become more popular with young voters since Obama won reelection in 2012. Polling conducted by the Reuters news agency and Ipsos has found that the party enjoys an 8-point advantage among young, white voters.

Rubio was supposed to help mend this imbalance by shifting the Republican Party away from divisive social issues like gay marriage.

Yet, as Berman points out, his entire messaging in recent months “has been based around presenting himself as the most conservative candidate in the field” in order to take the wind out of Ted Cruz’ sails.

Like the Latino argument then, the notion that Rubio could win younger voters assumes they won’t pay attention to what he actually says.

Perception versus reality

“What is apparent,” according to Berman, “is that there is a massive gulf between Marco Rubio the potential Republican nominee as perceived by the national media and Marco Rubio the candidate who has actually been present the last year.”

Consider Ross Douthat’s recent op-ed in The New York Times. He is frankly puzzled why Republicans aren’t rallying around Rubio to stop both Cruz and Trump. “Nobody’s sure why,” writes Douthat.

Some are, though.

National Review has reported that Republican insiders in the early voting states have been confused not only by Rubio’s strategy — competing with a right-wing purist like Cruz when he could be consolidating the center-right vote — but also by his absence. Rubio has put in far fewer appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina than his competitors. He has little, if any, organization on the found, which could cost him dearly in Iowa where — as we reported the other day — turnout is everything.

Rubio’s supporters claim he is running a different kind of campaign, one that focuses less on field operations and more on television commercials and digital outreach.

Which sounds like a great excuse for someone not making the effort.