What Went Wrong for Marco Rubio

An autopsy of a failed campaign.

Sen. Marco Rubio reacts to the Super Tuesday primary and caucus voting results at a campaign rally in Miami on Tuesday.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

“We are so excited about what lies ahead for our campaign,” Marco Rubio told an assembled crowd in Miami on Tuesday night. This was the sort of statement Rubio has become infamous for on primary nights: optimistic, forward-looking, and completely untethered from reality. Very little lies ahead for Rubio’s campaign: After winning a grand total of one state—a near superfluous Tuesday—he merely gets the opportunity to sit around and wait for Donald Trump to humiliate him in his home state of Florida two weeks from now.

Rubio’s candidacy failed for a number of reasons. Above all, Donald Trump has emerged as a nearly unstoppable force. But there were other festering problems, from his canned answers and overprogrammed style, to the unfortunate fact that he is a youngish, Hispanic man who speaks about his hopes and dreams for America to a Republican electorate that is white, old, and hopelessly depressed about an increasingly Hispanic America.* This is the sort of thesis that is impossible to prove with data, at least for now, but it is inarguable that Rubio never captured the imagination of the people who could vote for him. 

Beyond demographics, part of Rubio’s problem was that his substantive platform mirrored Bushism in too many ways. Foreign adventurism of the sort Rubio advocates (like much more aggressive stances against Assad and Putin) has rarely been less popular, and his other policies included (promised) giant tax cuts for the rich and (unmentioned) budget deficits for everyone else. In short, he was never able to connect with an electorate that is ready to move beyond compassionate conservatism. In his speech on Tuesday, when he had finished insulting Trump, he began speaking about issues like a strong defense of Israel, appearing once again more like a creation of Republican elites than a spokesman for average voters. Republicans have delivered a harsh verdict on traditional Republican priorities this winter, which is why Trump—who says (disingenuously) that he’d approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a neutral party—has been able to shunt aside GOP priorities while remaining popular with GOP voters. Rubio’s political acumen, long overrated, has proven particularly lacking in this environment. 

And, of course, there was his original sin: his membership in the so-called Gang of Eight, a group of senators who worked to pass an immigration reform proposal that, it was thought, might give Republicans a chance with Hispanic voters. This would have supposedly closed the wound of the 2012 election, which Republican elites had convinced themselves was lost only because the party was too harsh in its rhetoric on the issue. Rubio’s decision made no political sense even at the time; if a bill had passed, he would have had his name on Obama’s biggest second-term achievement. Instead, Rubio was tarred with the details of a bill that failed, and which he abandoned, making himself look both feckless and unprincipled. (The ways in which Rubio’s pro-immigration past mixed with his heritage in the minds of bigoted Republican voters is a subject for people more psychologically acute than myself.)

In the past week, as Rubio’s campaign became increasingly desperate to stop Trump, he began to develop a line of attack that could perhaps damage the real estate mogul, and one that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly use in the fall. “Donald Trump is a con artist,” he said Tuesday night, as he had all week, promising to “unmask the true nature of the front-runner.” Earlier Tuesday, he called him “Con-ald Trump.” But Rubio’s attempt to recalibrate the Trumpian narrative as one of business failure and pyramid-like schemes was undermined and eventually overshadowed by his childish attacks. Rubio mocked Trump’s hair and skin color, joked about the size of his hands, and kidded that perhaps Trump had peed in his pants during a recent debate. This wasn’t just demeaning; it also showed that Rubio had perhaps forgotten one of the lessons of the campaign, which, ironically, Chris Christie’s attack on him proved so clearly. When Christie went after Rubio’s robotic answers during that fateful New Hampshire debate, it not only destroyed Rubio’s chances in the state; it also did nothing for Christie, and may even have helped his opponents. Multicandidate races are not zero-sum games: You can bring down an opponent and still not get much benefit out of doing so.

Again, it’s too early to say whether Rubio’s attacks on Trump backfired: Rubio outperformed his polls in Virginia, for instance. But Trump would no doubt prefer getting down-and-dirty with Rubio over hand-size than he would the details of his bankruptcies or his relationship to the laughable Trump University, two stories that might have gotten more media attention were it not for all the ink expended on Rubio’s insults.

Finally, there was that New Hampshire debate. After Rubio “won” second place in South Carolina, it seemed that perhaps his debate collapse had been overhyped: another gaffe that dominates headlines for several days without really changing much. But it’s possible the initial conventional wisdom about his debate performance was correct. While there was no guarantee that he would have won New Hampshire, or would be winning states rather than losing them today, the debate performance did irreparably harm his campaign. He was polling second in New Hampshire and rising before that evening, but he finished fifth; his collapse kept John Kasich afloat, provided more oxygen for Ted Cruz, and, to conclude the mixed metaphor, gave Trump extra horsepower. 

It’s wishful thinking among those who dislike Trump to say that Rubio would be the presumptive nominee today if he hadn’t sputtered when responding to Christie. He probably still would have failed because he wasn’t the man Republicans pulling levers in 2016 wanted. Rubio’s inability to take off, and the ceding of his presumptive voters to Trump, was a sign that just about everyone, Rubio included, didn’t see where Trump was going—largely because they didn’t get where his voters were coming from.

*Correction, March 2, 2016: This post originally misidentified Marco Rubio as nonwhite. He is not nonwhite; he is Hispanic. (Return.)

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.