While the past week was a pretty good one for Ted Cruz and (unfortunately) Donald Trump, this was quite a rough stretch for Marco Rubio. Among other difficulties, during this time, he was seen to have a less than successful Super Tuesday, was blamed for contributing to the deterioration in the level of discourse in the race, was thought not to have performed strongly enough in the latest debate, and was encouraged by his opponents to leave the race after receiving very disappointing vote totals in all four of the contests on Saturday. Ouch! While things obviously could have gone better for Rubio, I think that some of the media coverage and some of the negative conclusions being drawn about him and the way his campaign is going might not be fully straightforward or accurate.
Although Senator Rubio is my preferred candidate, I may have been a little tough on him here over the last couple of weeks, as I shared some constructive criticism. So, I think I owe it to him to offer a little defense and encouragement now, and I’d like to start by taking a look at some of the events and topics that were important over the last week.
The week before Super Tuesday, polls did not look good for Senator Rubio. In the last few days ahead of those contests, Rubio launched his aggressive new campaign to “unmask” Trump as a “con man.” On Tuesday, Rubio’s results in the elections were considerably better than would have been predicted from the polls. He was able to win Minnesota, come very close in Virginia, and be more competitive in other places as well. Even though, going into Tuesday, Rubio had not been saying that he would win a bunch of states, but only that he expected to do well and pick up a sizable number of delegates, which he did, the focus of media coverage was on his lack of victories, especially because the contest he did win was decided later in the evening. It’s understandable for the media to focus on the winners of the elections, but it seems that doing so didn’t necessarily reflect the progress that Rubio had made in gaining momentum and securing delegates, especially in a collection of states thought to be generally more favorable to other candidates.
Decorum (or lack thereof) in the Campaign
For a few days following the Texas debate, in addition to directing serious criticisms at Donald Trump, Senator Rubio also tossed a few comic insults into his remarks in answer to the way Trump tends to treat those with whom he interacts, and these drew significant media coverage. Since then, it seems that most interviewers have wanted to ask Rubio why he chose to engage with Trump in insults and immature comments and whether he regrets doing so. Some in the general and the conservative media have attributed responsibility to him along with Trump for the level of unseemliness to which this presidential campaign has sunk. Now, I said last week that I thought Rubio needed to be careful about the personal insults to Trump and that he really shouldn’t have said a few of the things he did, but I think it is incredibly unfair to lump him in with Trump, as some seem to be doing, in terms of crude discourse and insults, etc. The handful of jokes Rubio made over a few days hardly compare to Trump’s frequent attacks against opponents and many others throughout his entire campaign. Also, some people seem to categorize every criticism of Trump as a personal attack, and I don’t think that is correct either. For example, Rubio’s contention that Trump is attempting to con people into voting for him by presenting himself as something he is not is actually a real attempt to explain to voters why they should not trust Donald Trump or reward him with their votes. In the past, conservatives have had an unfortunate tendency to quickly abandon like-minded politicians over the slightest perceived misstep, and I’m afraid there may be a bit of that happening in this situation, as well.
At Thursday’s debate, Rubio had the misfortune of a hoarse voice (and an illness), which limited his ability to participate and be heard in exchanges with Donald Trump. To me, while he was more serious and low key than on some other occasions, he still did a good job overall in the debate, challenging Trump once again about Trump University, a lack of interest in substantive policy, and so on, while also giving his own views about the dangers facing the world, the importance of the second amendment, etc. Plus, his yoga jokes in response to a Trump/Cruz “conversation” were genuinely funny. Some commenters thought that his performance wasn’t strong enough, though, and that perception can’t be helpful to him.
Related to the previous topic, it rather seems that Senator Rubio can’t win with his observers and critics. In the past, when he has largely refrained from confronting other candidates on stage, this was noted as a weakness and deficiency in trying to win the primary, as he didn’t have a “killer instinct.” When he recently took on Trump more forcefully and with a few humorous jabs, he was accused of helping bring the campaign’s tone down to an unacceptable level. Now, when I would say he returned to a more restrained manner during the Detroit debate, he was described as flat or lackluster by some. What is a candidate to do? I guess this once again goes to show it would be best just to be yourself because you really can’t please all of the others offering their often fickle or contradictory commentary on your choices. Of course, I may have been watching a completely different debate than others saw, because I was thoroughly confused when I read a piece that said Rubio had “climbed down into the mud pit to fight with Trump.” I didn’t see that in this debate at all. In fact, I thought Rubio seemed to be making a specific effort to keep things substantive most of the night. If a few instances of trying to talk over Trump (a not uncommon occurrence in any of the debates), discussing things unfavorable to Trump (such as Trump University, making clothes outside the US, hiring foreign workers, etc.), and calling him “Big Don” in response to yet another “Little Marco” wisecrack constitute a dirty fight, I think we either need a new rule book or we may as well just tell the other candidates they need to just keep quiet and salute Donald Trump’s unimpeded march to the nomination.
Super Saturday (When did they start calling it that, by the way?)
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump each won two of the elections held on Saturday, and Donald Trump, for some reason, felt the need to call for Marco Rubio to exit the race. I don’t know why Trump cares who else is still running, since, as he constantly reminds us, he is winning. While Saturday’s states weren’t really expected to be strong ones for Rubio, it was rather surprising and disappointing to see that he didn’t even come close in any of them, receiving vote totals well below twenty percent and even finishing in fourth place in Maine. Some commentary, including at National Review Online, included speculation about what it might be that had happened to hurt him so much at the voting booth: the tone he’d taken toward Trump, his last debate performance, Trump belittling him, or something else. There is no way to know what might influence voters, especially with the choices many have been making these days, but it seems to me that some of the suggested factors shouldn’t have led lots of voters to abandon Marco Rubio. As I said earlier, I don’t think Rubio actually had a bad debate, although Ted Cruz probably had a better one, but some poor reviews can shape the public’s perceptions. As for the “tone” issue, would the problem be a delayed negative reaction to the heckling from the previous week or a feeling that the rough treatment of Trump should have continued? After a little more thought, I suppose that it is possible the (exaggerated, in my view) criticism and questions being directed in the media at Rubio for his brief foray into insulting rhetoric could have negatively impacted some people’s opinions of him, even if they didn’t have a problem with his actions before, but I hope this is not true for many and is not a long-lasting effect. (On a side-note, I will admit that I sometimes wonder if the mainstream media may be more anxious to promote negative storylines about Rubio than objectivity and perspective might warrant. He may not be a favorite to win the Republican nomination right now, but Democrats and their allies may well see him as a tough opponent to face in a general election. As a result, I think they’d be all too happy if a few extra stories about his trouble with Chris Christie in the New Hampshire debate or people’s concerns about the tenor of campaign rhetoric could help to make sure that never happens.)
I’m still not sure how much weight to give the theories above, though. After all, the same day these contests took place, Senator Rubio received a very warm and enthusiastic reception during his appearance at the CPAC convention. Would that crowd still have embraced him that way if something had made many people in different parts of the country suddenly decide he was unworthy of their votes? I’m certainly no expert political analyst, but I’ve wondered if some other forces might be at work. Last week saw much discussion about the urgent need to stop Donald Trump from getting the nomination. As many have said, by this point in most primary seasons, voters would be flocking to the frontrunner, but this isn’t happening this year because so many are opposed to Donald Trump. Isn’t it possible that some voters have decided it’s time to rally around the acceptable, conservative, sane candidate with the most delegates at this point, and therefore voted for Ted Cruz? This obviously would be terrible news for Rubio’s campaign prospects, but it would not reflect any glaring shortcoming on his part or indicate that voters are rejecting him personally or on merit. Similarly, couldn’t a good number of voters also have decided to follow the suggestion offered by Mitt Romney and others to vote for whichever non-Trump candidate had the best chance to win a particular state, in these cases leading some who might otherwise have chosen Rubio to back Cruz instead? I did read an article that touched on this latter possibility, but some of what it said concerned me quite a bit, as it mentioned some voters in the hugely important winner-take all state of Florida who, after seeing Rubio’s low vote totals this weekend, were thinking his chances of winning were not good and were considering shifting their votes to Cruz. Since Cruz has been well behind Rubio in polling in Florida, decisions such as this from a group of voters would likely just make it far easier for Donald Trump to beat both Senators and scoop up Florida’s 99 delegates, which would certainly not be good for the anti-Trump effort. I would say that, if any significant number of people are going to engage in strategic state-by-state voting to secure wins by non-Trump candidates, which might best be used in the winner-take-all states, those who can disseminate information definitely need to make sure that voters have relevant news about candidates most likely to succeed in each state. Voters also need to be aware that such a strategy means that candidates who do not win a particular state will wind up losing by larger margins than they otherwise would. So, observers of a day’s primary results won’t be able to make the types of judgments that might usually be formed about candidates gaining or losing momentum or their prospects in future contests with much accuracy. With all of these things considered, I hope that voters inclined to support Marco Rubio will not give up on him yet, especially in his home state of Florida, where I’m sure a win would be particularly meaningful to him while also keeping a large number of delegates away from Donald Trump.
Some Bright Spots
Even during a tough week, there were still some bright spots for Senator Rubio. On Sunday, he won the Puerto Rico primary, securing all of the available delegates. Also, as mentioned earlier, Rubio’s presentation at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) on Saturday was very well received, and deservedly so. Watching the video of his speech reminded me once again of the reasons I liked him in the first place, and I would encourage those of you who haven’t already seen it to watch it here.
The current political climate and the unusual way the primary race has developed this year make it a steep uphill climb for Marco Rubio as he continues his quest for the nomination. This may turn out to be someone else’s year, and, in that case, if he should be asked to serve the country in another capacity, such as Vice President or a Cabinet position, I hope that he will give it serious consideration, as I think he could be a very valuable member of an administration (not headed by Donald Trump, of course!) Whatever happens, I would encourage the American public to look past the day to day sensational details of the campaign to see Marco Rubio’s good qualities, serious proposals, and optimistic outlook. At his best, Senator Rubio has the ability to share inspiring messages about conservatism and America in a very personable and positive way, and that’s one of the reasons his supporters believe he would be such a good choice to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States.
Note: This is the second of two posts about the campaign this week. The first may be found here.