Rubio’s Prospects in Iowa and Beyond

By Berny Belvedere Published on January 26, 2016

With the Iowa caucuses just a week away, let’s take stock of Marco Rubio’s chances there and beyond.

In Iowa — the season’s first electoral contest — Rubio sits a distant third behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Their lead over him is well into double-digit territory, and at this point nobody really expects Rubio to seriously challenge the two frontrunners. Rubio’s own camp appears resigned to a third place finish, even building it into their “3-2-1” strategy, which charts a path to victory by striving for third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. But what if Rubio could somehow do better than third in Iowa?

According to the HuffPost Pollster aggregate poll, Trump leads Cruz in Iowa by over 5 percentage points. This lead is not set in stone, of course. In 2012, when the Iowa caucuses were still a month away, Newt Gingrich enjoyed a 10 point lead over Mitt Romney and a staggering 22 point lead over eventual winner Rick Santorum (Gingrich would end in fourth place). Two weeks later, Ron Paul — who eventually slipped to third — opened up a 15 point lead over Santorum. Needless to say, in 2012 the Iowa race broke very late.

To add to the uncertainty, Iowa caucus-goers are late deciders. As political science professor David Redlawsk records: “Across both parties in 2008, 54% of those filling out the survey told us they had made their candidate choice only in the final month, and 5% came in the door that night undecided.” In 2012, nearly 50% of exit poll respondents said they decided who to vote for in the last few days before the caucuses.

Could Iowa be ripe for a similar shake-up in 2016? Theoretically, yes — just as Ron Paul’s 15 point lead over Santorum with two weeks left eventually disappeared, the lead that Trump and Cruz have over Rubio — which HuffPost has at nearly +20 for Trump, and nearly +14 for Cruz — could likewise give way to a late surge from the Florida senator. Is such a surge likely? In a word, no. Yet stranger things have happened. The Des Moines Register’s endorsement of Rubio, announced late Saturday night, certainly helps (though FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten throws cool water on how much the paper’s endorsement actually affects things). Enlisting Iowa Senator Joni Ernst to campaign with him is yet another boon, but in order for Rubio to topple one or both of the frontrunners — which at this point would represent nothing less than an electoral upheaval — much more than a newspaper’s endorsement, and a fellow senator’s appearance, will be needed.

Realistically, then, what might cause a Rubio surge?

First, Rubio would have to animate Iowans by ramping up his rhetoric. A forward-looking, optimistic vision is good and well for most elections — but after eight years of a galloping leftward drift, conservative voters expect a candidate’s temperament to match their own level of frustration and anger, and understandably so. Though it’s been said that Rubio “doesn’t do anger,” there’s evidence he is nevertheless increasing his aggressiveness.

For instance, when asked about a recent gun purchase, Rubio explained it might be his “last line of defense” against an ISIS attack. Though ridiculed on the left, a comment like this accomplishes three things in one: (a) in mentioning guns it reminds voters how strong he is on the second amendment; (b) in bringing up ISIS it plays up his commitment to national security; and (c) in offering “tough talk” in the context of radical Islamic terrorism, Rubio shows aggressiveness in a way that doesn’t seem disingenuous or contrived. By now most voters are aware he’s extremely hawkish on foreign policy, so this comment comes across as natural rather than as an instance of pandering. The last GOP debate prior to the Iowa caucuses will take place on January 28, where Rubio will get a final opportunity to make his pitch to the Iowa voters. If he has any shot of surging, he will have to continue to let a little darkness into his typically sunny presentations.

The big news of the past couple of weeks of course has been the disintegration of the Trump/Cruz relationship. There was chatter that their collision could be mutually destructive, but it’s highly unlikely that both candidates end up getting seriously damaged. If anything, one of them slides. For the seas to part and clear the way for Rubio, the attacks between Trump and Cruz would need to intensify to a point where the smears become unprecedentedly effective in both directions. There’s just no basis for expecting something like this.

If I’m so skeptical of the scenario outlined above, why even mention it? Remember: all I’m doing is suggesting how a Rubio surge might happen, if it were to happen. This is, admittedly, a really big “if.” What’s interesting is this entire election has exploded convention — what’s to say another surprise is not in store? One reason why I give the possibility of a Rubio rise a non-trivial chance of happening is, per a recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll, Rubio does far better than Trump (though not as good as Cruz) as Iowa voters’ “second choice” candidate. Thus, any reduction in support for either Trump or Cruz could result in votes finding their way into Rubio’s column. Having strong favorables really does mean a lot at this point in the race, since any change of heart can result in gains for candidates with high “second choice” numbers.

Why do I remain skeptical?

Consider that in 2012, Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite, was polling in first place just one day prior to the caucuses. Yet Santorum won. How do we explain this? Santorum’s victory can plausibly be construed as an 11th-hour attempt by Iowa conservatives to bury the establishment pick. The problem is, this time around, the situation is reversed. The current leaders in Iowa are not establishment-backed; they are the candidates the establishment is attempting to dislodge. So we can be fairly confident a conservative wave won’t be rising up to swallow up the current poll leaders since the wave is already here and it is why the leaders are who they are. Moreover, in 2012, Santorum benefited greatly from the demise of candidates whose profiles were not too dissimilar from his own. The collapse of Gingrich in Iowa was especially helpful to Santorum, as were the slides of Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman, candidates who had done very well in Iowa in the months leading up to the caucuses. There is nothing like this for Marco Rubio. Candidates who are broadly similar to Rubio have not performed well in Iowa this cycle, so there is no consolidation to expect there.

Even though theoretically Rubio is still alive in Iowa, a last-minute victory for him is nevertheless extremely unlikely to happen. Still, a third-place finish is not a bad outcome for him. This is because Rubio never needed to win Iowa — he just needed to do well enough to rally the establishment support to his side. In New Hampshire, one of the reasons why four establishment-friendly candidates are still in the running is because the party has not decided on any of them yet. Anything less than a third-place finish in Iowa would torpedo Rubio’s attempt to galvanize party support ahead of New Hampshire and beyond. This is why although Jeb Bush canceled his television ad buy in the Hawkeye State a couple of weeks ago, Right 2 Rise, a SuperPAC that supports him, spent 1.4 million on an ad buy that targets Rubio. Is Bush trying to win Iowa? No, he knows he has no chance. The strategy is to keep the party from coalescing around Rubio.

I’m not convinced a fourth place showing would be that much worse than coming in third for Rubio since the likeliest candidate to eclipse him is Ben Carson, who currently sits in fourth behind Rubio by several percentage points. Since Carson isn’t vying for the establishment vote, for Rubio to come out ahead of him or behind him doesn’t seem to be of very great electoral consequence. At fourth place, Rubio would still be the highest establishment-friendly candidate on the results board in Iowa. Though others — Bush, Christie and Paul, to name a few — have a shot at moving up in Iowa, it’s unlikely they’ll mount a real threat to finish in the top three.

Although Rubio gets pilloried for being the candidate whose rise is always being announced but never actually happening, it is a testament to his political talent that in an election functioning as a quasi-referendum on immigration, the candidate with the most baggage on this issue has not long ago been buried but is in fact still very much alive.

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