Election 2020

Marco's Last Stand

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) arrives for a campaign stop Feb. 16, 2016, in Summerville, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Marco Rubio may be on his way out of the presidential race, but he’s not going out quietly. For the first time in this campaign, actual dollars are being spent in traditional media to attack Donald Trump — and it’s mainly Rubio and his allies who are spending it.

Trump began the primary season with a couple of yuge advantages that many didn’t fully appreciate the significance of at the time. Specifically, he started at near 100% name recognition. Trump has been a fixture in our lives, and on our TV sets, since the 1980s. In a political campaign, being known is half the battle. If you think about it, the next most recognizable candidate in the GOP primary was Jeb Bush — and really it was only his last name that was famous. Outside of Florida, most people wouldn’t know Jeb Bush if he was standing next to them on an elevator. So in a field as large as the one we started with, Trump began with an incredible head start.

The other advantage Trump has enjoyed is the disproportionate amount of media coverage he has garnered, particularly early on. Again, with such a crowded field it was easy for the media to pump up the most recognizable candidate, particularly when that person is a bombastic, controversial, and larger than life caricature of what liberals perceive Republicans to be.

Trump has been very fortunate that the forces within the GOP big tent who find him objectionable as the party’s nominee were slow to recognize the level of support that he might garner and were slow to rally around a more palatable alternative. Many were skeptical (myself included) that Trump could stand the scrutiny once actual voting was underway. Many (myself included) could not have been more wrong.

For this, Jeb Bush bears a lot of the blame. Bush should have suspended his campaign before South Carolina, not after. Also, Right to Rise, the Jeb-supporting Super PAC, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to knock Marco Rubio, and not Donald Trump, from the race. The ad spend weakened Rubio and ironically gave Jeb’s tormentor aid and comfort. A Bush endorsement of Rubio is still being speculated upon but is less likely with each passing day.

Despite the fact Trump came out stronger than just about anyone anticipated, Jennifer Rubin correctly points out that The Donald has been under increasing scrutiny since about February 25th and his winning percentage has indeed taken a hit.  Over the last weekend, Trump went two for five in primaries and caucuses, and the two he won, he won close.

I don’t know if Trump can be stopped, but if he is to be stopped Florida is a key place for it to begin to happen. It was in Florida where, in 2012, Mitt Romney carpet bombed Newt Gingrich with negative ads and dealt a deathblow to Newt’s newly found momentum. And it’s in his home state that Marco Rubio hopes to deny Trump any more oxygen and hopefully revitalize his own campaign.

In Florida, we are finally beginning to see signs of a paid media pummeling of Trump. Highly visible anti-Trump advertising has been running in Florida at a good clip.  The TV ads are also being augmented with direct mail, attacking Trump for his views on such things as government confiscation of property through eminent domain.

Though some polling showed Trump with a lead of up to 20 points over Rubio, that polling all pre-dated the February 25th turning point in rhetoric against Trump. A new Monmouth University poll has Trump’s lead down to 8 points, but more importantly it’s showing that Marco Rubio has been banking early and absentee votes by a sizeable margin. This is significant since Trump has not been really able to close strong and converting late-deciding voters has been a strength, to date, for Rubio (which almost put him over the top in Virginia).

It’s notable that Ted Cruz appears to be contesting Florida despite indications that he’s running a distant third in the winner-take-all state. Recently, his campaign announced the opening of ten campaign offices and on Monday a Super PAC that supports Cruz began airing ads attacking, not Trump, but Rubio. Cruz, it seems, is more worried about Rubio hitting his stride and changing the narrative with a win in Florida than he is about handing 99 delegates to Trump.

On Monday night, CNN published a report alleging that there were high-level conversations within the Rubio campaign about the senator dropping out of the race before Florida votes on March 15th. Predictably, the source was anonymous and according to Rubio’s communications director, Alex Conant, nobody from CNN contacted the campaign to get a reaction. Compounding that, immediately after the kerfuffle, CNN disinvited Conant from a previously scheduled interview with Anderson Cooper.

The idea that Rubio would drop out at this stage is absurd given the aforementioned early voting that’s been going on. A Rubio withdrawal would all but hand the state over to Trump, an outcome that the campaign would probably see as the least desirable among the various scenarios. While there is no evidence this story was planted, it sounds a lot like the dirty tricks we’ve been seeing ever since Iowa to create uncertainty about the future of a rival campaign perceived to be standing in the way of Ted Cruz.

It seems like the Cruz campaign can’t get out of its own way and is being too clever by half. The irony is that a Rubio win in Florida is probably less dangerous to Cruz in the long run than a Trump win. Rubio would need to couple a Florida win with wins elsewhere that might be very hard to come by, especially with John Kasich presumably eating into Rubio’s numbers. If Trump wins Florida, and then the nomination, the actions of the Cruz campaign in the Sunshine State will be scrutinized for years to come. For Rubio, Florida represents the last best hope of derailing the Trump train.