The names on the tip of the tongue of every Republican presidential candidate not named Donald Trump or Ted Cruz today are Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, and, oh, yes, Hillary Clinton. We all know that in December of 2012, 2008, and 2004 those people were leading in the polls for their party’s presidential nominations and all of them wound up as ignominious losers in those contests. They’re right to note that leading in December doesn’t win you Iowa or New Hampshire and that the public won’t get really serious about picking a nominee until we’re much closer to when they start voting for real. But as much as these pieces of conventional wisdom are true, it is also a fact that trailing the frontrunners by huge margins and having no clear path to winning an early state isn’t exactly an advantage. That’s the dilemma faced by Marco Rubio as we 2015 draws to a close.
In theory, Rubio is well placed to win the GOP nomination, as he’s the one candidate that can appear to the largest number of Republicans. His brilliant debate performances, ability to project a positive conservative vision, and his appealing biography as the son of poor immigrants are seen by many as exactly what his party needs. He’s a social conservative and came into the Senate running as a Tea Party insurgent against the establishment. Though he is an outlier on immigration among conservatives, he’s also the best at articulating traditional conservative positions on foreign policy in favor of a strong America. Moreover, his strategists have acted throughout the campaign as if their greatest fear is that Rubio might peak too early only to come crashing down when the voting finally started like the famous examples of poll leaders that never became president.
The Rubio camp has avoided the peaking too early danger. However, the rise of Ted Cruz and problematic polling in all the early states has made the puzzle over Rubio’s path the nomination a popular story line. The candidate is right not to panic since he has plenty of time and the opportunity to do well in all the early states. Though his supporters may think the Texas senator is still on the ascent after closing the gap with Donald Trump in the latest national poll, Cruz may be the one peaking too soon. Nor is the lack of an early state as big a problem as it is being made out. A respectable third place finish in Iowa and a strong second place in New Hampshire for Rubio (provided that Trump finished first) would mark him as the leading moderate conservative in the race and probably effectively end the candidacies of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.
As it happens, Rubio is currently in third place in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. If, as his campaign hopes, he starts to pick up steam in January, he will be exactly where he wants to be to win the “moderate” primary. That would put him in a position to unite those elements of the party not interested in nominating either Trump or Cruz, and give Rubio, at worst, an even chance of becoming the Republican standard-bearer.
So Rubio’s fans are right not to panic despite the glut of doom and gloom articles being published lately about his inability to be first anywhere. But Rubio does have a real problem that transcends the armchair quarterbacking about where he should be investing the bulk of his resources. The most troubling aspect of the Rubio campaign right now is the idea being floated that he is a lazy candidate that isn’t prepared to work hard to persuade early state voters that he deserves their vote. That’s a theme Rubio-bashers like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough have continually sounded in recent weeks. Scarborough claims he’s heard that Rubio took a Sunday off from campaigning to watch football, a cardinal sin for any politician seeking the presidency.
Scarborough and his liberal co-host Mika Brzezinski even allowed their pal Chris Christie a platform for mocking Rubio for not showing up that often in New Hampshire and for missing Senate votes, a theme that former mentor Jeb Bush has also tried to use to discredit the Florida senator. Of course, for Christie, who has become an absentee governor in his quest for the presidency and whose poll numbers in New Jersey have sunk to all time lows, to play this card on Rubio is hypocritical. The same applies to Bush, who never criticized his brother for absenting himself from Texas while running for president in 2000.
It’s true that Rubio may not benefit as much from beating the bushes in rural Iowa or New Hampshire as some other candidates, but the perception that he is not all-in on this effort is the kind of image that is hard to shake. Though few Republicans care what Scarborough — who has evolved into being a liberal’s idea of a conservative on his left-wing network — has to say about anything, the notion that Rubio isn’t a hard worker or solely interested in appealing to large donors while running a campaign via television ads is the sort of meme that can kill a candidacy in the early going.
If he is to win, Rubio needs more than eloquence and vision. He also must be seen as a man who is on a mission in the same way that voters perceive many of his rivals, especially Cruz and Christie. Whether or not the charge is fair, nobody can get elected president if they are thought to be lazy or unwilling to go the extra mile to ask voters for their support. If the public thinks him wanting in effort, it will be seen as a failure of character and that is far worse than disagreements on issues like immigration or inside-baseball discussions about which state he will win.
That means that instead of worrying so much about where or when he will win a state, Rubio’s supporters should instead be watching to see whether he could project an image of determination and effort in the next few weeks that will dispel the loose talk about watching football. If he does, he’ll be fine. If not, Rubio’s presidential hopes will turn out to be all promise and no delivery.