Rubio’s Dubious Campaign Strategy

Marco Rubio's campaign strategy depends on a lot of hope, and no small degree of ignoring reality.

Image: Marco Rubio

With Donald Trump and Ted Cruz battling it out for first and second place in the race for the Republican nomination, the fate of Marco Rubio is looking increasingly dubious. While the Florida Senator has done well when it comes to garnering endorsements from fellow Senators and Members of Congress, and has generally gotten positive reviews for his performances in recent debates, there has yet to be any evidence that he is breaking through with voters. In the national poll average, Rubio is in third place but he trails Donald Trump by 23 points and second place Ted Cruz by more than seven points. Rubio is also in third place in Iowa but again trails Trump by seventeen points and Ted Cruz by fifteen points. Perhaps most disappointing for the Rubio campaign is New Hampshire, where the candidate stands in fourth place behind Trump, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Ted Cruz. Rubio’s performance in New Hampshire right now may be the most problematic because it’s the kind of primary state where one might expect a candidate like Rubio who appeals to both conservative voters and more moderate “establishment” Republican to do much better than he currently seems to be. Finally, in South Carolina, Rubio is in third place but once again its a third place that finds him trailing Trump by twenty-four points and Cruz by nine points. Beyond the numbers, the most important fact in all three of these early states is the fact that Rubio’s numbers have been relatively flat going back to October and November when it first started to seem as though his breakthrough moment had arrived. Instead of breaking through, though, Rubio has basically stood still while Trump and Cruz have surged, and that leaves one to wonder if he’s missed his moment and whether his current campaign strategy makes any sense at all.

Tim Alberta describes that strategy at National Review:

According to multiple Rubio allies recently briefed on campaign strategy, the senator’s team has settled on an unconventional path to winning the GOP primary contest. The strategy, dubbed “3-2-1” by some who have been briefed on it, forecasts a sequence in which Rubio takes third place in Iowa on February 1, finishes second in New Hampshire on February 9, and wins South Carolina on February 20. From there, Rubio would be well-positioned in the long haul to win a plurality of voters, and ultimately a majority of delegates, in a three-way contest against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

This planning represents a concession from Rubio’s brain trust that Cruz and Trump will take the top two spots in Iowa – most likely in that order – and that Trump will win New Hampshire. More boldly, it assumes that a Rubio victory will be possible in South Carolina even if he doesn’t win either of the first two states. This would not be unprecedented; Newt Gingrich in 2012 won South Carolina after finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. But many GOP officials and rival campaign representatives believe that Cruz and Trump victories in the first two contests would generate a head-to-head battle for the nomination, depriving their also-ran opponents of political oxygen heading into South Carolina. Rubio’s team is preparing for a different scenario. The senator’s operation — both campaign and super PAC — is anchored by South Carolina veterans who long ago identified their state as his firewall because of their institutional and organizational advantages, and because they viewed it as the best fit for someone without a geographic or ideological foothold in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Rubio’s supporters remain confident in their ability, even without a victory in the first two states, to deliver South Carolina. But to do so they must winnow the field. The way Rubio wins South Carolina, the thinking goes, is if he clears the establishment lane of competitors — Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush — so that center-right Republicans can consolidate behind him to defeat Trump and Cruz. But his team acknowledges that in order for that to happen, Rubio must finish ahead of Christie, Kasich, and Bush in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and by margins wide enough to discourage the continuation of their campaigns.


The scenario Rubio’s team envisions is at once plausible and pocked with complications. He consistently polls third in Iowa’s most recent surveys, and Republicans believe he has slowly edged out his establishment competitors here. New Hampshire is more problematic: Rubio ranks second in the RealClearPolitics polling average, but since the beginning of December he has been tightly bunched together with Christie, Kasich, and Bush. Cruz is essentially neck-and-neck with those four; a second-place finish could render the establishment battle irrelevant. Even if Rubio breaks away from the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire, there is hardly a guarantee of success in South Carolina. For one thing, Bush allies say their candidate has the resources, organization, and support there to stay in the race regardless of what occurs in the two earlier contests. (And they say he’ll be further emboldened to stay through South Carolina after Lindsey Graham’s endorsement.) Moreover, even if Rubio squeezes out his establishment rivals and secures a three-way showdown, Republicans believe there is a strong likelihood that Cruz and Trump will be coming off earlier victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, and riding momentum into South Carolina. Rubio at that point would find himself combating not just a pair of proven winning candidates, but a post-New Hampshire narrative of a two-man race.

In a conventional election year, Rubio’s strategy arguably makes some degree of sense. There is a case to be made, for example, that the South Carolina primary is more important harbinger in the race for the Republican nomination than either New Hampshire or Iowa. Prior to the 2012 election, no candidate had won the Republican nomination without winning the South Carolina primary in a streak that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 primary when Ronald Reagan won the state with 55% of the vote an event that essentially marked the end of the race for the nomination that year. (Source) Additionally, the fact that this year the South Carolina primary will be followed relatively shortly by the so-called SEC Super Tuesday Primary in early March when a wide swath of Southern states will vote on the same day means that a victory in the Palmetto State could provide momentum for a candidate headed into the rest of the region. Given all of that, a February that sees Cruz winning Iowa, Trump winning New Hampshire, and Rubio winning South Carolina would arguably set up a scenario where the race for the nomination is effectively reduced to three people and the GOP establishment is forced to choose a candidate. In that situation, Rubio would likely attract much of the establishment support as part of an effort to stop both Trump and Cruz.

The problem the Rubio campaign faces, though, is that 2016 is far from a traditional election year, For one thing, the size of the GOP field makes it less likely that Rubio would come out of Iowa and New Hampshire as the clear third man in the race  In Iowa, for example, the nature of caucuses can make the outcome so unpredictable that it’s entirely possible that Rubio could end up finishing fourth behind a candidate who managed to get a lot of their supporters to the polls even though they are currently lagging in the polls, or that his own campaign’s apparent lack of a real ground game could mean that Rubio supporters end up staying home instead of showing up on caucus night. In New Hampshire, meanwhile, other “establishment” candidates such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie have shown signs of life in recent polling that could indicate that they will surge in the final weeks before the Granite State votes and surpass Rubio into third place. Additionally, it’s worth noting that there are only three percentage points separating Rubio, Bush, and Christie in the current New Hampshire polling average and that, as I noted above, Ohio Governor John Kasich remains in second place. We could end up in a situation where Rubio finishes in third place but finds Bush, Kasich, and/or Christie grouped so close to him in the final results that it isn’t really a decisive finish. Finally, it’s worth noting that Rubio’s plan depends on Ted Cruz fading in New Hampshire notwithstanding the fact that he will have come off presumably winning the Iowa Caucuses, which seems unlikely. Alternatively, if it’s Trump who manages to pull off the win in Iowa then Rubio’s plan to make it to second place in the Granite State would seem to become impossible to achieve. In that case, it’s unlikely that he’d have very much momentum heading into South Carolina. It’s also worth noting that there is just about one percentage point separating Bush and Rubio in South Carolina, which essentially means they are tied for third place. Given that, it’s entirely possible that it’s Bush who surges in South Carolina rather than Rubio. At that point, Rubio would have been shut out of a win in each of the first three contests of 2016 and it’s hard to see how his campaign recovers from that as Trump and Cruz sail on to a two-man race that seems increasingly inevitable.

The biggest issue with Rubio’s strategy, of course, is that it requires everything to go perfectly in his favor. He needs to finish a clear third in Iowa without anyone challenging that position. He needs to come in second in New Hampshire notwithstanding the fact that polling indicates that he’s likely stuck in third place at best. And, of course, he has to win in South Carolina even after two weeks in which Ted Cruz and Donald Trump will have dominated the headlines. The likelihood of that happening seems small and the slightest mistake on his part would probably make it impossible. More importantly, it doesn’t appear that Rubio’s campaign has any fallback plan for how they’d win the nomination without winning one of the first three contests. If one had to assign odds to the success of this Rubio plan, I’d put them at being very low at this point.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. grumpy realist says:

    The other problem with Rubio is that’s he’s about as appealing as Velveeta on Wonder Bread.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    A New American Century

    Seriously? Is he unaware of the Project for the New American Century and its tragic outcome? Is everyone unaware that Little Jebbie! was one of the original supporters of PNAC, marking him as a neocon and likely a tool of the Saudi’s in his own right, independent of his brother?

  3. Jc says:

    Rubio might do well, if he grew a spine. I think deep down in places Rubio doesn’t talk about at parties this guy is a moderate, but he is played by all those around him and has no courage. He is basically Robert the Bruce in Braveheart “Robert is dominated by his father, who wishes to secure the throne for his son by submitting to the English” Replace Robert with “Marco” father with “handlers/Kochs” and replace English with “far right base”.

  4. PJ says:

    Is Rubio being advised by the “a noun, a verb, and 9/11” guy?

  5. grumpy realist says:

    Oh Lord….

    Why do I have the image of a thundering Godzilla rampaging across a field, with a totally unnoticed Chihuahua yipping around one ankle?

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Everyone who isn’t Trump is waiting for him to implode. So Rubio’s strategy isn’t any different from the rest of the also-rans.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Jc: You really think Rubio has beliefs beyond his own careerism?

  8. Jc says:

    @gVOR08: Yes, I get the self absorbed qualities from Rubio, but seeing some of his past positions I feel this guy is really just a moderate on many issues in his gut, I am probably wrong, but he just comes off so fake to me that his true beliefs are likely more moderate. I kinda see some variance in his viewpoints (not much) back prior to 2008 elections. He is a salesman in lawyers clothes. The whole credit card thing shows that. Maybe its because of the other two that he comes off as this to me – very Darth Vader, lost, but part of me thinks there may be some good in him somewhere

  9. Jc says:

    its stuff like this that has me wondering….these little blips….”But Ru­bio was not en­tirely a rock-ribbed con­ser­vat­ive. Some former col­leagues de­scribe him as a cent­rist who sought out Demo­crats and groups that don’t typ­ic­ally align with the GOP. Early in his ten­ure, for in­stance, he set up a meet­ing with farm­work­ers to dis­cuss their work­ing con­di­tions. He ad­dressed a crowd of about 50 one night in the hall of a mi­grant-labor hous­ing com­plex in Homestead, a farm­ing com­munity south of Miami; ul­ti­mately, he co­sponsored le­gis­la­tion that would have al­lowed work­ers to sue grow­ers in state court if they were cheated on pay. “The idea that any le­gis­lat­or, let alone a Re­pub­lic­an, would reach out to farm­work­ers was un­heard of. We were flab­ber­gas­ted,” says Greg Schell, man­aging at­tor­ney for the Mi­grant Farm­work­er Justice Pro­ject. In the years be­fore his speak­er­ship, Ru­bio would also co­spon­sor a bill that sought to award in-state tu­ition rates to the chil­dren of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.”

  10. stonetools says:

    Rubio’s 216 strategy seems similar to Giuliani’s 2008 strategy.

    His Republican rivals took the traditional route that began on January 3 with the Iowa caucuses, moving on to primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, with sideshows in Michigan and Nevada.

    Giuliani waited it out in Florida, assessing that taking the fourth most populous state in the country would outweigh wins in the early small states. He would then bounce forward to claim the other big states, including California, New York and New Jersey, on Super Tuesday, February 5.

    But by the time his rivals reached the Sunshine State, they had built up critical momentum, and Giuliani couldn’t catch up.

    I predict Rubio 2016 will also fail, and he will be increasingly irrelevant after South Carolina.

  11. Pete S says:

    Rubio’s policy preferences are terrible, that is just the price of admission to the Republican race this year. But he is trying to combine that with at least acting like a normal person in a year when the voters seem to think the candidates can best act “real” by behaving in a way that no real person I have ever met would.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Pete S:

    behaving in a way that no real person I have ever met would.

    Which is to say – like people on reality TV. Which is what the R nominating process has become.

  13. Slugger says:

    Sen. Rubio is only 44 years old. If I were on his team, I’d aim for 2024. Let the Trump/Cruz outfit go down in flames this year. Recognize that the angry white guy voting bloc is full of old people whose mortality is not far off. Recognize that Spanish speakers are the fastest growing demographic in the country. I would have him build his portfolio as a reasonable Eisenhower style Hispanic Republican. Work hard at being a senator; it’s boring, but you have to be willing to eat a little dirt if you want the Oval Office. By 2024, people will be tired of Democratic Presidents and leery of the firebrands on the GOP side. The donor class will be glad to see a nice guy who is not stuck with a bunch of poisonous ties.

  14. J-Dub says:


    Work hard at being a senator

    Only problem there is that he is not running for his Senate seat.

  15. Guarneri says:

    @grumpy realist:

    That’s a good analogy. So Hillary is week old fish on moldy Wonder Bread.

  16. Guarneri says:


    Yeah. Good thing Hillary is steadfast in her beliefs……….not.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @grumpy realist:

    The other problem with Rubio is that’s he’s about as appealing as Velveeta on Wonder Bread.

    I do not underestimate Rubio, or at least I try to avoid that, however, he’s making it hard. Thus far he has spent his time appearing to be as substantive as Dan Quayle.

  18. Scott says:


    substantive as Dan Quayle

    That is probably a good analogy. I don’t dislike Rubio but I do view him as a total lightweight.

  19. datmar says:

    GOP is going to regret making Trump or Cruz the nominee.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @al-Ameda: @Scott: Rubio strikes me as a feckless twit. But that didn’t stop W from getting nominated and elected. And Marco comes off like a guy a guy would like to have a cerveza with.

  21. Gustopher says:

    At least he isn’t using young children on a field trip as props in an anti-abortion campaign stunt, complete with giant pictures of fetuses and talking about harvesting organs.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Slugger: 2020 might be a good year for Republicans too (assuming Clinton or Sanders wins this go around), and the firebrands might have gotten their true conservative this year, and be well chastened.

    Rubio seems like the kind of Republican that wouldn’t completely destroy everything, which might be a problem for him this year. He’s such a nice young man, with such good manners. I worry that he’s hanging out with a bad crowd.

  23. Pete S says:

    Maybe we are overthinking this. He has already shown that he is unwilling or unable to keep up to the workload of being a Senator although he made the typical excuses that someone who is in over their head would make. Are we sure he really wants to put in the effort of being President? He is running exactly the campaign you would expect of someone who had promised their wife they would try to get the job, but who doesn’t want it.

  24. Frank Lesser says:

    @Pete S:

    He’s following the Obama playbook. Kerry did the same thing when he was running.

  25. emperor ming says:

    @datmar: Trump will doom the party and allow Clinton to win.

  26. Tillman says:

    @Jc: His response on Black Lives Matter also showed off this moderate quality.

    The GOP elite isn’t coalescing around him like one could’ve imagined a month or two ago, so unless he’s running a 50-state strategy no one’s bothered reporting on he’s not going to take the nomination. His campaign may have bet too heavily on Trump being a flash in the pan, which is forgivable (the press made the same bet) but foolish all the same.

  27. Tillman says:

    @gVOR08: I’m almost positive the allusion to PNAC and its zombie ideology is intended. It’s not as if we had a moderate foreign policy expressed by him in early debates that ever so slowly morphed into lunatic ravings; Rubio’s always professed a straight neoconservative view of the world.

  28. de stijl says:


    Sen. Rubio is only 44 years old.


    Thus far he has spent his time appearing to be as substantive as Dan Quayle.

    The problem with Rubio’s campaign is not the strategy, but Rubio’s persona.

    (That, and the fact that with Rubio pursuing immigration reform a few years back when establishment R’s thought that winning at minimum 40% of the Hispanic vote was necessary for future R Presidential campaigns. [Hint: it is.] Rubio castrated himself with that move. The base will never trust him.)

    The Rubio persona is boyish. And not in a winning, go-getter way, but in a Peter Pan syndrome – he’s in way over his head – manner. He may be a fully functioning adult adept at juggling competing priorities, but he comes off like a Webalo desperately wishing every night before he falls asleep that he were just one year older so he could be a real Boy Scout.

    But, he’s also the Establishment’s best shot versus Trump and Cruz.

    So he’s going to get some serious coaching. He needs it, but even if he tries his best and takes every lesson to heart, he’ll still come off as clueless noob who’s trying too hard.

    If he was your buddy, you would gladly ask him to help you move – pizza and beer all around, but you would never ask him to be your Best Man. Too much responsibility. He would try hard, but he would flounder. He would be ill-suited to the the task.

  29. de stijl says:

    Continuing the Best Man scenario:

    Trump: He would belittle your ring and mock your diamond choice, not as a side-bar, but loudly and in public. He would arrange a HUY-UGE and CLASSY bachelor party. Overpriced champagne and glacial ice vodka. He’d give you the number of his prenuptial guy. You might end up in a nudie bar, but it would be super CLASSY nudie bar.

    Cruz: You’d get a pro forma bachelor party, but the host would alienate all of the hospitality staff. Like, severely alienate. You’d spend half of the next day calling up people and apologizing for your rude friend. You may not get back the same stone you paid for in the jewelry store. Ted’s a bit of a weasel.

    Rubio: He would drop the ring down a sewer grate when getting scammed while trying to hire the strippers. The strippers will never show up. He would be very contrite.

    Kasich: No strippers. (Thank God, I like to know someone before I check out her goodies. Strippers and nudie bars just ain’t my thing. I’m super uncomfortable with nudity before emotional intimacy.) Solid poker and scotch / bourbon night.

    Fiorina: Corporatey party. All the deets arranged by her staff. Her staff will be excellent. She’d show up for 7 minutes and give you a two-thirds hug and wish you well. You will never see her in person again. Her people will send an apologetic text fifteen minutes before the ceremony regretting her absence.

    Christie: Nudie bar, nudie bar, nudie bar. Jaeger bombs. Someone, somewhere is going to be told to shut the eff up during the night. Guaranteed.

    Bush: You may not even remember the party the next day not because of alcohol, but because it would be the most boring party ever. Unless W shows up and then it’s game-on. And if Bar shows up up then it’s game-on x10 – girl’s a mega-partier.

    Graham: Filipino rent-boys.

    Huckabee: Group full-immersion baptism and then Thai “girls.”

    Carson: No idea. Probably just a middling DJ and some Chex Mix and Bud Light.

  30. Neil Hudelson says:

    @de stijl:

    Graham: Filipino rent-boys.

    Thanks for making me spit-take my coffee.

  31. de stijl says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    I actually thought about deleting that line before posting because some weird-ass folks might construe it as anti-gay. There are so few closeted people nowadays. Seriously, it’s super weird to be closeted in 2016.

    Zero problem with Graham being gay. Huge (Trump would say HUY-UGE!) problem with Graham being in the closet.

    I’m not gay so I’m loathe to try to figure out when and where the ethics are when to out a politician who is not actively anti-gay in his professional life. And Graham is not a political gay basher so good on him for that. But I’m not outing Graham in any way. It’s basically common knowledge.

    But, c’mon dude! It’s 2016. No one cares. You’re never going to get re-elected as Senator and you will never be President. Fly your damn freak flag, man!

    Lindsay Graham, please come out.