There hasn’t been this much excitement in the luxury boxes since the 1991 Kentucky Derby when Mane Minister showed at 87-1. Marco Rubio’s expected third-place showing set off a frenzy of spin and sly promotion in the commentary class. The conventional wisdom is that Rubio is the more electable Republican in November as compared to Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
The conventional wisdom is wrong, just as it was in 2012 and 2008.
Marco Rubio has two significant problems that render him a problematic November candidate. The first is his record on the most important issue of the year. The second is being the newly anointed preferred candidate of the Washington establishment.
The strongest supporters of Marco Rubio are those who think the political rules of 1996 still govern election outcomes in 2016. They believe a candidate cannot win without appealing to the moderate middle. They still believe the incentive and reward system of the pre-polarized world governs election outcomes (or they are themselves politically moderate).
They are unfamiliar with the revolutionary role of data analytics that now enable candidates who appeal to the base to drive deeper into their base. It allows them to turn out ideological allies at a far cheaper marginal rate than appealing to the hard-to-mobilize moderate middle.
In other words, the strongest supporters of Marco Rubio will be the same folks who thought Mitt Romney and John McCain were the most electable in November because they were moderate, or not as conservative.
Romney won the moderate middle and independents in 2012 but still lost the election.
This happened because Obama used the Catalist database. Catalist gave him the ability to identify and motivate the most extreme ideological voters who came with the smallest marginal cost to turnout. While Obama was driving deeper into the leftist base and turning out ideological allies at 1 unit of marginal cost, Romney ignored his base. Romney spent time trying to persuade independents, who by their nature were tough to persuade at, say, 5 units of marginal cost.
The post-2004 data-driven model that the left used in 2008 and 2012 made an appeal to the middle as effective as attacking tanks with mounted cavalry. (If it still isn’t clear: “Catalist: Obama’s Database for Fundamentally Transforming America” provides greater depth.)
Marco Rubio’s biggest problem is that in November, the base may stay home because of his advocacy of amnesty.
To recap, Rubio was the ringleader of the Gang of 8 who sought to do what the Republican base does not want done: amnesty. It would be like nominating a candidate who supported government health care in a year when the base vehemently opposed it, which I will get to shortly.
As recently as last June, Rubio was saying he wanted to make illegal aliens citizens.
Some tell me that they don’t think immigration is the most important issue to Republican-inclined voters. Fine. We can differ. But to millions of blue collar Reagan Democrats and economically distressed middle class Americans who see the immigration fight as symptomatic of the lawless destruction of the country they love, it makes all the difference.
And herein lies Marco Rubio’s electability problem. If he was running in 1996, his amnesty support would play nicely on NBC Nightly News and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But it’s not 1996 anymore, and a very large and indispensable potential GOP vote get their news elsewhere and may stay home if Rubio is the nominee — namely, the base.
But of course they wouldn’t stay home and let Hillary win, we are told.
What makes you so sure? They did that in 2012 when another candidate had a similar problem.
In 2012, the Republican Party nominated the one candidate who could not hammer President Obama on the central issue of the year — government-managed health care. Mitt Romney was a champion of government-run health care as governor of Massachusetts and that effectively destroyed his ability to press fire on the president. The Republicans who nominated Romney in February and March abandoned the most mobilizing issue for November.
But Romney was sure to appeal to the moderate independents in November, right? Romney was more electable than Gingrich or Santorum, we were told.
After Iowa, it appears the same people who brought you Mitt Romney are now smitten with Marco Rubio (Ann Coulter excluded). We’re hearing the same thing we heard in 2016. Claims that Rubio is the most “electable” candidate are wrecked on the history of 2012.
Rubio’s flirtation with amnesty does more than keep the base home — it limits his rhetorical weaponry.
Romney couldn’t effectively attack Obamacare because he once supported something similar. How will Rubio credibly attack the lawless deferred-action policies of Obama when he shared the same goals? Is it enough for Rubio to say: “I wanted legislation to grant amnesty; Obama does it by edict!”? To the base, the distinction is meaningless.
If you think that Rubio is the most electable candidate with his record on immigration, you might not fully appreciate what is motivating the essential GOP base. It is folly to assume the base will turn out for a candidate who supported amnesty simply because they don’t want Hillary to win. It is also folly to hope that a candidate’s conversion from a top advocate for amnesty to a professed opponent is sufficient to calm the base.
The second problem impairing Rubio’s November electability is the post-Iowa frenzy by the establishment to adopt him as their own. 2016 is the year of the outsider, the renegade, and the boat rocker. It is the year disestablishmentarianism is not just the answer to a trivia question. It describes the prevailing political winds.
Pay attention to how soon Eric Cantor endorses Rubio after Jeb drops out. Cantor’s endorsement is the Typhoid Mary of Republican politics in 2016. Cantor, after losing his seat to the disestablishmentarian wave, spent his insider clout to go All in For Jeb.
The more Rubio is branded as the candidate of the insider establishment, the less likely he will win in November.
Of course, if you don’t think an energized base is essential to win an election and they will just show up regardless, then feel free to disregard the warnings. If you think the Republican base isn’t more important than the moderate middle, then Rubio just might be your candidate. If you think the base will support a candidate who supported amnesty because immigration isn’t terribly important to the base, then do so at your own peril. In the meantime, understand that arguments about electability of Rubio vs. Cruz vs. Trump in November go both ways.