When the Jeb Bush campaign leaked the idea that “Marco is a GOP Obama” in October, the comparison wasn’t meant as a compliment. Yet many on the right and the left have interpreted Rubio as the Obama of 2016 — a young, energetic, fresh Hispanic face to represent the future of the Republican Party. Unfortunately for the Florida senator, the comparison simply doesn’t work.
Sure, both Rubio and Obama were one-term U.S. senators who ran for president, both had a history in state office, and both have been criticized for not showing up to vote during their presidential runs. Both also ran as the fresh face and racial minority in their campaigns. But there is a fundamental difference between 2008 and 2016 — and his name is Donald Trump.
It’s Not 2008 Anymore
In April, Rubio entered the presidential primary as the young, energetic alternative to Jeb Bush. “I believe that the Republican Party has an opportunity in 2016 to do something it hasn’t been able to do in a long time, and that is make the argument that we’re the party of the future,” he told Yahoo News’ Matt Bai.
This message would be a great contrast to Bush — 18 years older, a man whose family held the presidency in the 1990s and 2000s, and who hasn’t held political office himself since 2007. A fresh face versus a dynasty of the past — strong messaging.
Then came Donald J. Trump.
From the moment the billionaire media mogul entered the race, he struck a nerve. His national poll numbers (from the RealClearPolitics average) jumped from 4.3 percent in late June to 24 percent in August, and they have remained above 20 percent ever since, even reaching new heights in December. Trump has dominated the media and sucked the air out of potential competitors, knocking down seasoned governors Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry.
Trump has made 2016 nothing like 2008. Were Jeb Bush — who still leads in high-dollar fundraising by a wide margin — still the Republican frontrunner, Marco Rubio’s “fresh face” could have been effective. But with the maverick mogul ahead in the polls, Rubio has become just another “establishment” candidate. Like Bush, Walker, and Perry, Rubio has been “Trumped.”
Barack Obama manipulated a perfect storm of opportunity in 2008. Not only was the young Illinois senator the maverick against a strong establishment frontrunner, but his race gave him a unique advantage in the primary, not just the general election. Furthermore, Democrats in 2008 were fed up with a conservative president and wanted a strong liberal alternative, which Hillary Clinton — who voted for the Iraq War — had trouble embodying.
While blacks are a strong minority in the Democratic Party, Hispanics do not form a large voting bloc in the GOP. Both Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz are Cuban, and while Cubans have a strong presence in Florida’s Republican politics, their nationwide reach is nowhere near that of Obama’s potential black supporters. Hillary Clinton also actively courted blacks, who likely would have supported her, if not for Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucus.
Furthermore, there are stylistic differences between Rubio and Obama. Both are great debaters, but while Obama is more confident and personable, Rubio is more hesitant and rehearsed. New Hampshire reporter Erik Eisele infamously described him as “a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points.” That’s harsh, but not without a hint of truth.
Rubio Is Not Obama, He Is – Wait for it…
Rubio is this year’s “John Kerry.” In 2004, Democrats had a divisive primary, driven largely by the candidacy of outspoken liberal Howard Dean. Dean did not have anything like Trump’s poll numbers, but the media did give him way more coverage than he deserved — as they have done for Trump this year.
When Dean faltered, Democrats quickly consolidated their support behind five-term Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Like Kerry, Rubio has a real shot at becoming “the perfect consensus candidate for a riven party.” Kerry was “liberal enough to appease supporters of Howard Dean and establishment enough to reassure everyone else…both acceptable and electable.”
Rubio may be more electable than acceptable, however. Democrats often admit he is the candidate who scares them the most, and in a general election against the dynastic Hillary Clinton, Rubio would finally have the race he was ready for when he announced last April.
The question of acceptability has become an issue for the young Florida senator, however. In 2013, he teamed up with Democrats to lead the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform effort, a sign that the Republican Party was willing to compromise. Trump’s fiery anti-immigration rhetoric has whipped up his supporters, leading pundits to question whether Rubio can re-earn the trust of an angry Republican base.
Overall, Rubio’s policies may represent a return to the hawkishness and “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush. This contrasts strongly with the more restrained Jacksonian foreign policy shared by Trump and Rubio’s other strongest competition, Ted Cruz, but it also finds a middle ground between Cruz’s purer ideological conservatism and Trump’s economic liberalism.
The Primary Calendar May Favor Rubio
The GOP primary consists of a long list of states that vote one after another. The early states tend to be more conservative and have delegates broken up according to vote share, while the later states lean more establishment/liberal and award delegates in a winner-take-all fashion. This leads to a bizarre situation where conservatives win big early, but more moderate candidates — like John McCain and Mitt Romney — end up winning in the end.
Rubio is polling in third place nationally, third place in the first voting state of Iowa, and second place in the second state, New Hampshire. If he keeps his lead over other establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, he could well consolidate the establishment wing of the party, and win big in the later primary states. He has to contend with Jeb Bush’s big money, but Bush has spent a lot so far, and has nothing to show for it.
If a consensus candidate emerges in the presidential race, the odds favor Rubio. Like John Kerry, he may be in the right place at the right time — but he has to beat the other establishment candidates first. Until then, Cruz and Trump still have a better shot.