Marco Rubio, The Next GOP Rising Star?

Quietly, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been moving close to the front f the race for the Republican Presidential nomination.

While most of the attention in the race for the Republican nomination remains focused on Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, Nate Cohn notes that there’s another candidate who seems to be slowly rising in the polls who could end up being the man to watch in the final months before voting starts next year:

A lot has changed since April, when Marco Rubio announced his presidential bid. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was the top candidate of mainstream conservative activists and donors. Jeb Bush seemed like a fund-raising juggernaut with natural appeal to the party’s moderate voters, who play an underrated role in the Republican primary process. Mr. Rubio, a broadly appealing candidate but the top choice of few, looked boxed out.

Today, Mr. Rubio isn’t blocked. Instead, he has a big opening.

Mr. Walker dropped out of the race, and Mr. Bush does not look nearly as strong as it seemed he might. Mr. Bush hasn’t won many endorsements, he isn’t faring well in the polls, and his impressive fund-raising reflects a narrow base of strong support from wealthy super PAC donors, not wide support by party elites.

Can Mr. Rubio take advantage of the opening? He hasn’t quite had his moment in the media spotlight, he hasn’t made big gains in the polls, and he hasn’t earned many endorsements. But the political landscape surrounding his candidacy could not have changed much more in his favor over the last six months.

Mr. Walker’s exit is the most obvious and recent development to help broaden the path ahead. Yes, Mr. Walker had lost nearly all of his support in the polls by the time he left the race, but he still had a significant level of support from Republican elites, and Mr. Rubio has picked up several former members of Team Walker.

Mr. Walker’s withdrawal did more than release his old supporters. It narrowed the choice for mainstream conservative donors, voters and officials who had been waiting on the sidelines. Without Mr. Walker in the race, the choice for mainstream conservatives started becoming clearer. Unless they are willing to support an anti-establishment candidate like Ted Cruz, it’s down to Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush.

The choice between those two will undoubtedly be difficult for many conservatives in the party. But from the beginning, there were a fair number of conservatives who weren’t likely to support Mr. Bush, and their choice has now become substantially easier.

Mr. Bush hasn’t done much to make this a hard decision. He has struggled to gain traction with voters. And he’s in danger of being caught in a feedback loop: His struggle to break through to voters has raised the doubts of party elites, making it more difficult for him to consolidate the elite support that could help him overcome the skepticism of voters and block viable rivals, like Mr. Rubio.

The sense that Mr. Rubio’s position has improved is reflected in the betting markets, which show him rising steadily to a 29 percent chance of winning the nomination, more than twice the 13 percent he held before the last Republican debate. Mr. Bush is at 31 percent.

Mr. Rubio, however, will still need to capitalize on the voids created by Mr. Walker’s exit and Mr. Bush’s weakness. With well-received debate performances, he has been praised as the best communicator in his party and has strong favorability ratings. But he has not yet become the top choice of many party elites or voters; in fact, he holds about as much support in the polls as Mr. Bush, and far fewer endorsements.

Rubio’s rise has been particularly apparent over the past several weeks in the wake of the second Republican debate and the withdrawal from the race of both Rick Perry and Scott Walker. As Cohn notes, to a large degree Rubio is now one of maybe three candidates who can be credibly said to have the kind of appeal to both the “establishment” and conservative wings of the GOP, with the other two being Jeb Bush and perhaps Ohio Governor John Kasich. Moreover, as Cohn notes, Rubio has done a fairly good job of closing the gap that once existed between him and the former Governor of Florida, although it’s not at all clear that this has translated over to support from donors and other party insiders who still seem to be rallying behind Bush as the candidate best suited to beat Trump and win the General Election. Kasich, meanwhile, has an impressive resume and many of the same insider contacts that Rubio and Bush do, but the extent to which he’s moderated his tone while Governor of Ohio has turned him off to much of the conservative wing of the party and it’s not clear if he can get over that. Rubio, meanwhile, seems to be will situated to draw support from both of these wings of the part.

Much of Rubio’s success so far, of course,, can be attributed to his resume, which includes both a considerable period in Florida state politics that included serving as Speaker of the state’s House of Representatives and a 2010 Senate campaign in which he became one of the national faces of the Tea Party movement and manged to force a popular Republican Governor out of the primary race and then defeat him in a three-way race in the General Election. Rubio’s Tea Party star was tarnished to some degree by his involvement in the effort to put together an immigration reform bill in the Senate, but in the time since then he has managed to repair at least some of those relationships while at the same time carving out a reputation as one of the top spokesmen on foreign policy in the Senate GOP Caucus. Combine this with the fact that he has done fairly well in both of the Republican debates so far, although it can’t be said he set off any sparks, and it’s not hard to see why he’s starting to gain attention.

Looking at the polls, Senator Rubio’s rise is quite easy to see, especially over the past month or so. Nationally, he’s now in fourth place with an average of 9.9% according to RealClearPolitics. While this isn’t quite as good as the 12-14% he was averaging in the months before Donald Trump entered the race it does reflect a significant turnaround for a candidate who many thought was starting to disappear as the summer went on. It’s also worth noting that Rubio was in double digits and third place in three of the five polls that have been conducted since the last Republican debate. Rubio isn’t doing quite as well just yet in Iowa, where his 7.7% average puts him in fifth place behind Ted Cruz, but it’s worth noting that there have only been three polls in the Hawkeye State since the last debate, and Rubio has improved on his pre-debate numbers in all three of them. Rubio is also in fifth place, with a polling average of 7.0%, in New Hampshire but again the post-debate polling that has been conducted there shows a marked improvement in the Senator’s fortunes in the Granite State. The situation is much the same for Rubio in South Carolina, where he averages 5.0% at the moment, but again the only poll taken in the Palmetto State since the debate shows him doing much better than he had been for most of the summer. Finally, Rubio is in fourth place with an average of 13% in his home state of Florida, but it’s worth noting that the gap between 2nd place (Jeb Bush) and Rubio’s position is only 1.7%. Clearly, then, Rubio is rising in the polls and seems set to be someone that could take on both Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who remain at the top of the Republican field.

With Rubio’s seeming rise in the polls, of course, will come increased scrutiny, and increased attacks from other candidates. Indeed, Rubio started becoming a target of Donald Trump’s attacks even before it was apparent that he was rising in the polls, and Rubio’s campaign has responded in kind in a feud that promises to be on full display at the next debate. Additionally, Senator Rubio is starting to come under fire for his voting record in the Senate, which shows that he has been among the most frequent members to miss votes over the past several years. Rubio has tried to explain away this issue by arguing that most of the votes he has missed have been either relatively unimportant procedural votes or matters in which his vote would not have made a difference. As the old saying goes, though, when you’re explaining you’re losing, and it’s easier for voters to digest the “Rubio misses a lot of Senate votes” attack than his explanation for why they shouldn’t consider that a big deal. Additionally, there are still many on the right who have bitter feelings against him over 2013’s immigration reform efforts. Assuming that Rubio continues his rise in the polls, you can expect that he will be attacked from all sides on these and other issues. If he can make through that, though, than the Senator from Florida is arguably well set to be a contender once the voting actually starts.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    I know you are only interested in the horse race…and not policy…but he has offered up tax reform that blows up the deficit to a tune of $5T…so he should be a Republican star!!! Rainbows and unicorns for everyone!!!
    Seriously, Doug…how is Rubio one tiny bit different from George W?

  2. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: Bush offered what, cut the top rate to 28% and a 3T shortfall? Then Rubio offers big tax cuts and a 5T shortfall. Finally Trump offers a 25% top rate and a 13T shortfall. First liar hasn’t got a chance.

    Rubio comes off as such a lightweight feckless twit I can’t believe the establishment would support him. Then I remember W.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    Well this will make the Florida primary much more interesting to watch.

  4. Tillman says:

    @C. Clavin: First, I am extremely skeptical that elections in the United States are won on policy, contrasted with tribal affiliations and evaluation of candidates’ personalities, cf. Martha Coakley losing to Scott Brown in Massachussetts, Elaine Marshall losing to Richard Burr in North Carolina, etc.

    Second, Rubio is younger, Cuban, and more psychopathic than Bush 43.

    @gVOR08: I’m positive Republicans said the same of Obama. Maybe not feckless, but certainly incompetent.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    So far, and it’s still early on, Marco Rubio has been an empty suit. I do think that Rubio is formidable and he should not be underestimated. Also, he’s ambitious enough to know that he needs to say whatever it takes to get the nomination. A slight hindrance to this might be that the Ted Cruz wing of the party will have a hard time accepting the notion that Rubio is non-RINO enough for them.

    I’m not convinced that Rubio has strong beliefs in ANYTHING, after all he just threw himself under the bus the other day when he disavowed his own joint proposal on immigration reform that went nowhere (because Republicans wanted no part of it.)

    As far as crossover appeal? A mirage that Republicans have been indulging ever since disaffected white working class voters switched to vote for Reagan. Rubio will not cause one Democratic voter, not even Democratic Hispanic and Latino voters to switch allegiance.

  6. stonetools says:

    But, Rubio is young and HISPANIC. He is the great multicultural hope of the GOP for the 21st century! It doesn’t the matter that his foreign policy is from 1982, his economic and tax policy is from 1932, and his view of women’s reproductive health is from 1832!
    My guess is that now that he has moved up, the media is going to focus on his issues and ask him, for example, whether he really opposes all abortions, even for rape and incest. Moreover, NYT is already after him about his master-servant relationship with billionaire Norman Braman. Now he is a smooth operator, but it’s a long road and he is going to have to answer some tough questions-questions he isn’t smart enough to slide around for months. I expect that he will be slipping down the polls again before too long.

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    Alternate hypothesis: just like 2012, the polling / media coverage will cycle through all the candidates, giving each a turn at the top, before coalescing on a thoroughly mainstream candidate like Jeb! or Kasich.

  8. Pinky says:

    @Rick Almeida: I think that’s a real fear for any candidate who shows what looks like a peak. After last cycle, we’re kind of fixed into a narrative where once you lose the lead you can never regain it, kind of like horse racing. Politics is usually more like a golf tournament, where the lead often changes hands between the top few players.

  9. Jc says:

    Rubio is a likable guy, but his answers and his flip flops are so ridiculous I just don’t see how he can be taken seriously by anyone. He comes off as so fake it’s painful to watch. like the water bottle reach, it’s just painful and unserious and fake. Say what you want about Obama and his experience prior to election, but at least he exuded confidence. Rubio exudes none of this, otherwise he may have been a contender.

  10. Franklin says:

    @Pinky: I don’t know if that’s precisely what Rick’s saying. In particular, Jeb had an early peak but he may come back in the end. But flimsier candidates, like Carson and Cruz, probably won’t recover after falling from their peak (although I have to admit, the surprising amount of money that Dr. Carson raised last quarter may be enough for another bump for him down the road).

  11. Todd says:

    It’s pretty much indisputable that the commentariat here at OTB tends to be overwhelmingly Democratic. As such I think it’s instructive that so many seem to underestimate the potential of a candidate like Rubio, while simultaneously overestimating the likely “strength” of Hillary Clinton.

    At this point, I’m genuinely a little fearful about what the world might look like on the morning of November 9th 2016.

  12. Turgid Jacobian says:

    Rubio is just a more affable version of a Romneyesque nihilist.

  13. Grewgills says:

    Rubio is the scariest of the bunch. I think he would be the most formidable opponent on their side in the general and his policy preferences are among the worst of the bunch. It could be a nightmare if the takes the nomination. He’s young and pretty and can at times seem far more moderate than he actually is. He could fool the general public into thinking he’s a moderate for long enough to get elected. If he runs against Hillary or Biden it’s a dog fight. If he runs against Sanders he’ll run away with it. Sanders is old, can be crazy looking, and can be easily portrayed as fringe Left. Rubio and the GOP would capitalize hard on all of that.

  14. Kylopod says:


    At this point, I’m genuinely a little fearful about what the world might look like on the morning of November 9th 2016.

    I second your comment. I think most of my fellow Dems seem far too smug about 2016. The consensus I see here and in other places is that Hillary is something between an overwhelming favorite and a shoo-in, and I simply do not see that. I’m not saying she’s doomed necessarily, but too many Dems are setting themselves up for a shocking disappointment. I only hope this attitude isn’t filtering up to Hillary, who already has a history of being the hare to another candidate’s tortoise.

    First of all, there is definitely a well-established historical pattern that it’s harder for a party to hold onto the White House after two consecutive terms than one. It isn’t some inviolable rule by any means, but it’s a real tendency. Al Gore in 2000 just barely won the popular vote at a time when his party was presiding over a booming economy and the incumbent president was very popular; why assume that Dems will have an easier time winning under a weaker economy and a president with mediocre approval ratings?

    Second, all this talk about a “blue wall” is vastly overstated. The Dems do appear to have an EC advantage, but it isn’t some insurmountable barrier, and if the GOP can cobble together 51% in the popular vote, they will almost certainly win the EC as well. The EC advantage doesn’t create some static situation where the swing states are infinitely unattainable; it just makes them a bit harder to reach than the nation as a whole, and if the popular mood swings away from the Dems in the next year, which is entirely possible, the change will be reflected in those states as well.

    While the Trump candidacy has been plenty entertaining, I doubt it’s going to matter in the end. I think it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that he’ll drop out before Iowa, and even if he doesn’t, I just don’t see him winning more than a primary or two, once the GOP money people decide to coalesce around a candidate. In any case, we political junkies often overlook the fact that few voters beyond hardcore partisans are tuned in at this point; by next fall it’s likely Trump will be a distant memory in most voters’ mind.

    And yes, Rubio, for all his flaws–which are significant–is probably the best candidate they have. We underestimate him at our peril.

  15. Gustopher says:

    Rubio is the one I can see getting the nomination in the end. More energetic than Bush; not completely inexperienced like Trump, Carson and Fiorina; palatable to the establishment; palatable to the fringe. Flip-flopping will be called “considerate” or “populist” or something.

    And, on stage with Clinton, Biden or Sanders, looks young and fresh. Or like a small child. But, we will be told he is young and fresh, and that Clinton looks old, and that’s enough for a lot of people.

  16. cian says:

    We underestimate him at our peril.

    And the idiocy of the average American voter. Look to Wisconsin, Maine, Kansas, and tell me I’m wrong. Disastrous governors wrecking their states, and all re-elected. Their hatred for women, minorities and the poor was there for all to see. Their complete abdication to the 1% and big business was front and centre. Still, there they are, continuing to pass laws that treat the working poor like second rate losers who deserve to be punished- drug testing for welfare recipients; food stamps denied to anyone who has managed to put money aside in the hopes of a better day; cuts to health care, education, social services. Nothing in Rubio’s record suggests he’d be any different.

  17. gVOR08 says:


    … once the GOP money people decide to coalesce around a candidate.

    That’s really the only issue here, isn’t it, who will the establishment back?

    However it looks like there are now two Republican establishments. There is the traditional old money, corporate, finance, neocon establishment; but there’s also a new money, resource extraction establishment. For lack of a better tag, a Koch Bros establishment.
    The traditional establishment wants someone who’ll keep their taxes low, and not upset the apple cart with silly stuff like shutting down the gov’t over Planned Parenthood. Bush, Rubio, Kasich.The Koch Bros want someone who won’t raise taxes and won’t do anything about carbon. They don’t give a fwck about the debt ceiling, immigration, foreign policy or anything else, except as a hook for the rubes. Pretty much anyone with an R will do, and the dumber the better.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    @Todd: If the US populace is stupid enough to continue down that road, they deserve losing to China.

    I’ve about given up. I’m going to continue working on what R&D I can here in the US, but if anyone out there can offer me a job with an intelligent populace that believes in science and technology and human rights, I’ll emigrate pronto.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: For me one of the most depressing aspects of the Great Recession was realizing that Europe is even more deeply controlled by bankers than we are.

  20. stonetools says:

    MIchael Tomasky attacks the notion of Rubio being a formidable election candidate here. His first reason not to panic over Rubio:

    Reason One: His youth story line can be very easily countered. Picture a Clinton-Rubio debate. Rubio prattles on about youth, the future, optimism, what have you. Mrs. Clinton? “Well, look, the Senator is undoubtedly younger than I am, that’s an objective fact. But if we’re talking about which one of us has the policies of the past, I’d say voters should look beyond mere age. Which one of us wants to keep fighting the Cold War in Cuba, and which one of us wants to move toward a new future there? Which one of us opposes gay people getting married, a policy of the past that large majorities of Americans no longer support? Which one of us would allow no abortions even in the case of rape and incest, which is literally kind of a 19th-century position? Which one of us not only opposes raising the minimum wage but opposes the existence of a federal minimum wage law, which would us all the way back to 1937, the last time this country had no federal minimum wage? That’s the candidate of the future?” Boom. If she said something like that and made two good commercials and Democrats in general hammered away at it, Rubio would shut up about the future pretty fast.

    I think Rubio is pretty much flavor of the month right now. I expect other candidates will get their turn (yes, there will even be a “Cruz” surge, which will really send a bunch of liberals to the fainting couch). I don’t think we will really know anything about how voters feel till Iowa.

  21. Neil Hudelson says:


    I’ve been waiting for the Cruz surge for awhile. Now my fingers are crossed it won’t happen until, oh, the last week of January or so.

  22. Pinky says:

    @stonetools: I don’t know if this was a bad excerpt, but Tomasky seems like the type who assumes his political side’s arguments are ontological.