Miami — “I loved watching Michael Jordan play basketball, because he could do things with the basketball that were not teachable,” Whit Ayres, a highly regarded Republican pollster, said in between sips of coffee in a downtown D.C. hotel conference room. “Marco Rubio is the Michael Jordan of American politics.”
It was March 31, 2015, just 13 days before Rubio, long considered the GOP’s brightest star, would launch his campaign at the Freedom Tower here in his hometown. Ayres, Rubio’s polling guru, had written a book with detailed, data-driven prescriptions for Republicans to take back the White House in 2016. He met on that March morning with a few dozen reporters to make his case — not just for the book and its blueprint, but for Rubio, whom he did not hesitate to hail as the party’s messiah.
Though he ran as an outsider, the young senator wasted no time forging connections with Washington heavyweights and surrounding himself with skilled campaign operatives to help plot a path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. After wisely sitting out the 2012 race, in which Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of Latino voters after a primary filled with harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration, Rubio and his team were convinced that spearheading a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration-reform effort would earn him the party’s goodwill and position him as a 2016 front-runner. They were wrong. The conservative grassroots revolted at Rubio’s co-authorship of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the Senate “Gang of Eight” bill collapsed, and by the summer of 2013 Rubio had become persona non grata to the same Tea Party movement that had carried him into office just three years earlier.
His star was dimmed — but hardly diminished. In a tribute to both his resilience and the stubbornness of elite impressions of his aptitude, the Florida senator found himself a top-tier contender at the outset of the 2016 race. There were reasons it should not have been so: his misreading of the base on immigration; his standing with conservatives, who had defected in droves to Ted Cruz, another charismatic Cuban-American senator with designs on the presidency; and the looming presence of friend and former mentor Jeb Bush, who was the first Republican to announce his intention to enter the race. Yet Rubio and his team began the campaign in April 2015 convinced of his unmatched talent, and bullish — bordering on cocky — about his prospects of winning the nomination and the White House.
“It is clear that while we’re on the right side, this year we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio told a crowd of several hundred supporters at Florida International University. Having foregone reelection to the Senate to focus on his presidential bid, he now faces an uncertain political future. With an eye on 2020, convinced that Trump will be devastated in a general election, Rubio used his closing remarks Tuesday night to condemn the GOP front-runner in harsh terms — though not by name — for using “fear” to “prey upon” the insecurities of voters.
Rubio’s eloquence, intelligence, boyish magnetism, and made-for-TV biography are the makings of a prototype presidential candidate.
Rubio and his audience were emotional on Tuesday night, but the result could not have come as a surprise. The writing had been on the wall for weeks, leaving allies and advisors — some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for this story to preserve relationships with the senator — lots of time to reflect. There is no shortage of self-justification in defeat, and Rubio’s team had plenty of reasons at the ready to explain their loss: the unsuitability of his optimistic message for these angry times; the huge sums spent against him by opponents and their super PACs; and the block-out-the-sun celebrity of Trump, which deprived opponents of oxygen even on their campaigns’ best days.
These explanations are not without merit. Yet to the essential question — how someone so talented performed so poorly on the biggest stage — the simple answer is already apparent: Marco Rubio is not Michael Jordan. At least, not yet.
Rubio’s eloquence, intelligence, boyish magnetism, and made-for-TV biography are the elements of a prototype presidential candidate. On paper, he is the Republicans’ dream and the Democrats’ nightmare. But talent in and of itself is neither transcendent nor transformational. And while the comparisons to a basketball legend began with Rubio’s once-in-a-generation skill set, that’s also where they ended.
Jordan’s greatness did not owe to talent alone. He was a maniacal competitor who refused to be outworked. He played to win, never waiting for opponents to beat themselves. And he was a master of all facets of the game, capable of besting different rivals in different ways rather than relying on a single strength.
Rubio is a different story. He campaigned on the ground so infrequently for much of the campaign that even some supporters questioned how hard he was willing to work to get elected. He refused to play for wins, choosing instead to position himself as everyone’s second choice in hopes of becoming the consensus unifier as the field winnowed. And his strategy was one-dimensional, leaning so heavily on personality and biography that his concrete proposals — aimed at convincing voters that he knew how to solve their problems, not just how to relate to them— never broke through.
The story of Rubio’s losing 2016 campaign is not simply that these shortcomings did him in; it’s that they were apparent early on and were ignored by a candidate and a team convinced that star power alone was enough to overcome them.
* * *
The red flags were visible in late summer. Rubio had enjoyed a solid bump from his mid-April announcement, fortuitously scheduled for the day after Hillary Clinton launched her own campaign. “Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday,” Rubio told his hometown audience. “Yesterday is over. And we are never going back.”
It was a shrewd introduction of the “generational contrast” Rubio aimed to paint with Clinton. And, like his other notable line that day — “I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege” — it doubled as a broadside against Bush.
But Rubio couldn’t build on the initial bounce. In one of 2016’s great unsolved mysteries, he spent much of the summer avoiding voters, so conspicuously absent that opposing campaign officials would ask reporters about his whereabouts. Officially, Rubio aides often claimed that he was on private fundraising swings. And yet for the entire third quarter of 2015, spanning from July through September, Rubio raised less than $6 million — a haul dwarfed by those of Bush, Cruz, and Ben Carson. Even Carly Fiorina raised more.
At the same time, news clips piled up detailing Rubio’s poor attendance record in the Senate. Stories alleged he’d missed half of his committee meetings; others claimed he had the Senate’s worst voting record. It was enough to prompt multiple Florida newspapers to pen editorials demanding his resignation. The “truant senator” narrative, on top of his absences from the trail and his lackluster fundraising, gave pause to Rubio’s friends and foes alike. “He’s not visiting the early states and organizing. He’s not raising money. And he’s got the worst Senate voting record,” Rick Tyler, the Cruz campaign’s former national spokesman, recalls thinking during that period. “So then people began to wonder: What exactly is he doing?”
Of those three perceived weaknesses, Rubio’s light footprint in the four carve-out states proved most damaging. As summer turned to fall, and Bush proved to be far less formidable than anticipated, an obvious vacuum appeared for Rubio to fill. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Republican officials wondered aloud when the Florida senator would finally begin investing the time and resources needed to make a serious play for the swaths of center-right voters desperate for an alternative to Trump and Cruz. But Rubio’s team, reluctant to raise expectations in any given state by setting up shop, kept playing hard-to-get. And defying suggestions that he become the mainstream GOP candidate, Rubio began going out of his way to court evangelical leaders and their constituents in the fall, leaving both wings of the party puzzled.
“He seems to be directing a lot of his time and energy into fighting Cruz and opening up his path on the right with social conservatives. That’s an interesting choice, since that lane seems to be about purity instead of electability,” John Stineman, who ran Steve Forbes’s 2000 Iowa race, told National Review in November. “Rubio seems to be the most establishment-friendly candidate with any legs at this point. Yet he seems to be avoiding that lane. I can’t quite figure it out.”
By the time Thanksgiving arrived, frustrations were boiling over. “Not all Iowa Republicans are on the edge of their seats awaiting Bob Vander Plaats’s presidential endorsement,” former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn said at the time, referring to the evangelical leader whose forum Rubio had recently attended. “Yet that’s where most of the candidates seem focused, which perhaps explains why Iowa’s significant block of center-right economic conservatives remain up for grabs.”
The outcry wasn’t limited to Iowa. GOP veterans in New Hampshire registered similar complaints with Rubio’s associates there. “It is a risky strategy to do what Rubio is doing,” Dave Carney, a New Hampshire–based GOP strategist who served as President George H. W. Bush’s political director, told the Boston Globe of Rubio’s absence in the state. “If something bad happens, then his entire house of cards will crumble. He needs personal relationships here and people willing to fight for you when times get hard.”
Grumbling about the Rubio campaign’s organizational inadequacies, which could be heard from the outset, was never addressed.
Rubio’s team wasn’t the least bit bothered by the criticism. They had long ago sketched the outlines of a media-heavy campaign that would funnel investments to their most precious resource: Rubio himself. The senator’s team boasted of sitting in with Fox News producers and witnessing Rubio’s Q-rating spike off the charts as he spoke direct-to-camera. This was more valuable, they decided, than any expenditure on door-knocking or phone-banking. “More people in Iowa see Marco on Fox and Friends than see Marco when he is in Iowa,” Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager, told the New York Times in early December.
In retrospect, Rubio’s aesthetic appeal was obviously not enough. “When you have a candidate as charismatic as Rubio, the people around him buy into the cult of personality,” says David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “You know, Barack Obama is a charismatic guy, but we also had a very detailed plan on how to get from A to B. If all we had done was rely on his charisma in Iowa and not built the greatest organization the state had ever seen, we would not have won the Iowa caucuses.”
Grumbling about the Rubio campaign’s organizational inadequacies, which could be heard from the outset, was never addressed. One Rubio staffer describes showing up at D.C. headquarters on the Sunday before the District’s GOP primary, prepared to get door-knocking assignments. The only problem? “They told us there was no lit,” the staffer said, referring to campaign literature. “Why are we wasting our time door-knocking without lit? If nobody was home, we weren’t even doing a lit-drop there; they were getting nothing. It’s a small incident, but it was indicative of the bigger picture, of how disorganized the field operation was top to bottom.” (The staffer says he actually went home to print his own pro-Rubio literature for door-to-door distribution.)
The strategic contrast between Rubio and Cruz was especially stark in Iowa, a state both candidates felt they could win. They both ran data-heavy operations that prized micro-targeting of receptive demographics, and they were both prominently featured on the state’s airwaves down the home stretch. But when it came to the shoe-leather campaigning that often matters at the margins in caucuses, the consensus among Republicans in the state was that Cruz had simply out-hustled his colleague from Florida. “We’re on an 18-county tour doing five events per day, and Rubio’s doing one or two events per day,” Tyler recalls. “I don’t know why that was, or who was driving it. But I think in a sense we just outworked him.”
Despite those deficiencies, Rubio’s strategy — which Cruz derided as “running for president from a television studio” — seemed to be paying off as the year drew to a close. Rubio had risen steadily in the polls, finishing 2015 in the low to mid teens in Iowa and New Hampshire, within striking distance of the leaders. He was perceived to be competitive in rarely polled South Carolina, where he had also been running ads, and in Nevada, the oft-ignored fourth nominating state, where his team boasted to donors of out-organizing the competition.
Rubio’s position was as enviable as it was unusual: Four states, four competitive contests, four opportunities to win. There was just one problem: His campaign refused to hone in on any one of them.
* * *
‘To win the nomination you have to win states,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s 2012 chief strategist, says. “I love Rubio and I love his guys. They’re all A-team players. But my question for them was always: Where are you going to win?”
The question hounded Rubio throughout 2015. Unlike Cruz, whose flag was planted in Iowa, and Bush, who poured resources into New Hampshire, he had refused to prioritize any one contest. This was in keeping with the approach of his team, which dismissed “process” questions pertaining to strategy and expectations. In September, after the second GOP debate in Simi Valley, Calif., Sullivan warned his staff that the two candidates most attentive to process stories were Scott Walker and Rand Paul — “and look where that’s gotten them.”
Running for president, however, is nothing if not a process — and no one in the GOP’s modern history has been nominated without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire. These realities weighed on Rubio’s operation as the calendar flipped to 2016. The refusal to talk expectations, once a strategic advantage, had become a vulnerability. Reporters, rival campaigns, and even Rubio’s own allies poked and prodded, hoping to unearth some gem of tactical intelligence.
The dam broke in the second week of January. Multiple Rubio associates who had been privy to a senior-staff discussion on campaign strategy told National Review that the Rubio brain trust was outlining an unconventional sequence in which Rubio would place third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. The strategy, nicknamed “3-2-1” by those briefed on it, banked on a rapid winnowing of the field. Rubio’s team felt that a third-place finish in Iowa — ahead of “establishment lane” competitors such as Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich — would thrust him ahead of the pack in New Hampshire. If he beat them there, Rubio could consolidate the center-right vote, which, added to his share of conservatives, would give him a winning coalition in the ensuing three-man race with Trump and Cruz.
The strategy, nicknamed ‘3-2-1’ by those briefed on it, banked on a rapid winnowing of the field.
Rubio’s team denied the existence of any such strategy, but in the days following the story’s publication, several early-state surrogates confirmed that it was consistent with their impressions of the campaign’s thinking. And down the home stretch, senior aides seemed to bear it out: Two weeks before Iowa’s February 1 caucuses, they began preemptively spinning a third-place finish as a devastating blow to their New Hampshire–focused foes.
Rubio did secure a strong third-place showing in Iowa, significantly outperforming the polls with 23 percent of the vote, and celebrating with what critics said sounded like a victory speech. It was: Rubio had finished just one point behind Trump, and four and a half behind Cruz, in a state where he was projected to finish in the mid-teens. More importantly, his next-closest competitor was Carson, at 9 percent; his rivals in the establishment lane had become afterthoughts.
The polls in New Hampshire reflected this new reality. Rubio, who for weeks had been stuck in the low teens in a five-way cluster with Bush, Christie, Kasich, and Cruz, suddenly broke out. Several reputable polls showed Rubio jumping to 17, 18, and 19 percent in the immediate aftermath of Iowa’s caucuses, establishing clear separation from the non-Trump pack. Heading into the February 6 debate in Manchester, on a Saturday night just three days before the primary, Rubio was positioned to complete step two of the process — a second-place finish that could send Bush, Christie, and Kasich packing, and set up the three-way race Rubio’s team craved in South Carolina.
Then, Chris Christie turned the race upside down.
* * *
Rubio’s two greatest assets as a candidate — his oratory and his biography — are interlinked: He is at his rhetorical best when sharing the inspirational story of how his parents’ sacrifices enabled him to achieve what they could not. Rubio has told the tale with such frequency, and has come to rely on it so regularly, that he often delivers chunks of it with uncanny repetition — the exact words unchanged, his cadence rising and falling on the same syllables.
Rubio’s intense focus on biography, however, posed problems for the campaign. He had a beefy policy platform and evident knowledge of current events. Yet his speeches and debate appearances almost always began and ended with an ode to his humble beginnings, something even his admirers worried was precluding a more tangible pitch that told voters what his presidency would offer. “Rubio’s a bio candidate. He is the message. And I think being a bio candidate, if you’re a good one, is golden. It’s the one thing you can’t buy in politics,” Stevens says. “But voters need a value-quotient on how a candidate is going to improve their lives.”
There was another, much more damaging consequence of Rubio’s reliance on personal profile. Having memorized and streamlined the speech about his family, Rubio naturally began to do likewise with commentary on policy matters and political disputes, dispensing identical talking points day after day even when they weren’t entirely pertinent to the questions at hand. Being “on message” is vital to campaigns, but Rubio grew disciplined to the point of absurdity. His friends feared that despite his innate abilities, he was being stage-managed to avoid any verbal variations that could lead to gaffes. And his campaign had in fact become notorious for keeping him under wraps. For a time they vexed the media by holding infrequent press gaggles in which aides wielded a list of reporters to call on — a highly unusual practice they eventually abandoned.
By the time voting began, Rubio’s highly mechanical messaging had become a matter of great interest in the campaign world. It was a subject of fascination not just for reporters but for rival campaigns, and understandably so: His greatest strength suddenly loomed as a potential weakness — if only someone could exploit it.
Christie did. New Jersey’s governor entered the Manchester debate mired hopelessly in the single digits. His numbers in New Hampshire had plummeted, and he blamed Rubio’s super PAC, which had dropped millions of dollars slamming his record on the state’s airwaves. It was too late to resurrect his campaign — but not too late to exact revenge. Christie found Rubio too prepared for a clash they both knew was coming, rattling off a clearly practiced line that pivoted from New Jersey’s poor economic performance to Obama’s intentional makeover of America. “He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Rubio said of the president. Christie turned to the audience and pointed out Rubio’s “memorized 25-second speech,” and a minute later, when Rubio repeated his remark verbatim, Christie pounced. “There it is,” Christie smirked. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.” A visibly flustered Rubio responded by repeating the line yet again, capping an unforgettable five-minute exchange that pundits dubbed a “murder-suicide” likely to bury both campaigns.
Having arrived a week earlier with the wind at his back, Rubio placed an embarrassing fifth in New Hampshire, taking just 11 percent of the vote.
Having arrived a week earlier with the wind at his back, Rubio placed an embarrassing fifth in New Hampshire, taking just 11 percent of the vote. Worst of all, he finished behind Jeb Bush and John Kasich, who both emerged from the night with fresh momentum to continue on, eliminating Rubio’s prospects for winning South Carolina in a three-man contest. He rebounded admirably from the New Hampshire debacle, securing the coveted endorsement of Governor Nikki Haley before closing strong to edge Cruz for second in the Palmetto State with 22.5 percent of the vote, exactly 10 points behind Donald Trump. But the damage was done: Bush and Kasich took a combined 15 percent of the vote, leaving Rubio’s allies to wonder what might have been. (Kasich, who, like Rubio, stayed in the race until his home state’s winner-take-all primary on Tuesday, won Ohio handily and will remain in what is now a three-way race, hoping to work collaboratively with Cruz to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.)
The repercussions of Rubio’s debate implosion were felt far beyond South Carolina, however. Kasich’s continued presence proved lethal to Rubio on Super Tuesday, most notably in Virginia, where he lost by three points when Kasich split the anti-Trump vote in the D.C. suburbs. Without a solid voting base, Rubio’s campaign was built on narrative and momentum — and it was easily undone as losses piled up and perceptions of his viability faded.
In that sense, South Carolina’s result was the high-water mark of Rubio’s campaign. He had eliminated Bush, and his team was thrilled at finishing ahead of Cruz in a conservative, evangelical-dominated southern state. They predicted Cruz would flop on Super Tuesday, where he’d staked his campaign to a cluster of southern states. South Carolina’s exit polls showed Cruz losing evangelicals to Trump, and only narrowly leading Rubio with the same group. The Texas senator, Rubio aides said, was losing a grip on his base.
But at least Cruz had a base to begin with.
* * *
There was bad news for Rubio buried deeper in the South Carolina exit polls. He won college-educated GOP voters, but took just 27 percent of them, while capturing 17 percent of non-college votes. He won 22 percent of evangelicals, and an identical 22 percent of non-evangelicals. Most tellingly, his performance across the ideological spectrum was consistent: 19 percent of “very conservative,” 25 percent of “somewhat conservative,” and 23 percent of “moderate” Republicans backed him. The breadth of his support was impressive, but its depth was lacking: Rubio hadn’t come close to winning any one category.
“The central flaw of the campaign is they had an identity crisis. They wanted to be all things to all voters. Broad appeal — it sounds nice, but it’s a monumental task,” Tyler says. “Jeb wasn’t going to catch on, and you could see that people were shifting toward Rubio. And he would have been a very effective establishment favorite. But Rubio just never embraced it.”
Tyler adds, “Rubio wanted to build a coalition of Republicans. And we feared that he could, first by consolidating the establishment and then digging into the conservative base. But he just refused to embrace the establishment.”
This was consistent with Rubio’s theory of the race. His brain-trust had concluded in the spring of 2014, a year before launching, that the Republican nominee would have to transcend the party’s ideological and demographic divides. This was evident in their refusal to prioritize one state over another: Too much time in Iowa and you’re a conservative courting evangelicals; too much in New Hampshire and you’re a moderate wooing the establishment. Some Rubio lieutenants insisted until the bitter end that their strategy was the right one, and that Trump’s emergence rendered all of the campaign playbooks irrelevant.
Others aren’t so sure. “Primaries are always about base. And you have to have a base in a divided field,” Axelrod says. “Rubio tried to be everybody’s second choice, hoping that if the field narrowed he would become people’s first choice. That was a flawed theory. And it contributed to a sense of trying to be all things to all people, and that hurt him. He was a man without a country.”
‘They didn’t want to get branded with the scarlet letter, so they had no brand at all. And one thing is for sure: If you have no brand at all, you’re not going to win.’ — David Axelrod
Axelrod is sympathetic to Rubio’s concerns about not running as an “establishment” Republican in an election defined by anti-government wrath, but argues that it was his only plausible path to the nomination. “They didn’t want to get branded with the scarlet letter, so they had no brand at all,” he says. “And one thing is for sure: If you have no brand at all, you’re not going to win.”
Insofar as Rubio had a trademark, it was his seriousness and substance on policy. He cultivated a reputation in the Senate as a wonk who dined with think-tankers and put himself through crash courses on international affairs and economics. (His skeptics argued it was a careful bit of brand-building in preparation for the presidential run to come.) He carefully guarded that image on the campaign trail, playing up his policy credentials, avoiding any engagement with Trump, and sticking to the thoughtful, inspirational themes he’d established.
But as the race slipped away, so too did Rubio’s self-discipline. After a lopsided loss to Trump in Nevada, the campaign decided that it was finally time to take on the front-runner. Rubio spent the February 25 debate in Houston poking holes in Trump’s résumé, irritating the billionaire real-estate mogul with unprecedented effectiveness. His performance earned rave reviews. But three days later, at a university rally in Virginia before Super Tuesday, he took the anti-Trump onslaught in a new and uncharacteristic direction, mocking his opponent’s “spray tan” and “small hands,” a below-the-belt reference to Trump’s manhood. As the college crowd went berserk, Rubio’s aides were besieged with dazed and irate missives from donors, allies, and friends. Rubio’s reputation as conservatism’s upbeat, optimistic standard-bearer — so meticulously crafted over so many years — was dissolving before their eyes. They feared it could mark not just the demise of his 2016 campaign, but the collapse of what once seemed a bright political future.
Rubio’s team defended the ad hominem attacks as a necessary evil, arguing that they had no other way to eat into Trump’s wall-to-wall media coverage. “There’s this tension between staying on substance and playing to what’s become a reality-TV election,” one Rubio adviser says. “And we gave in to the urge to play to reality TV.” It nonetheless represented a stark and bizarre departure, and, making matters worse, it failed to reverse the downward trajectory of Rubio’s campaign. He acknowledged as much in the aftermath of an agonizing Super Tuesday that saw his only win of the night (and his first win the campaign) come in the Minnesota caucuses. A week later, after he earned a grand total of one delegate in the four March 8 contests, he admitted his regret over the remarks at a Florida town hall televised by MSNBC. “It’s not something I’m entirely proud of,” he said. “My kids were embarrassed by it. . . . If I had to do it again I wouldn’t.”
* * *
On the eve of Florida’s primary, hundreds of Rubio’s friends, family members, and neighbors gathered at his old stomping grounds in muggy West Miami. Spilling onto a blacktop basketball court where Rubio played as a youngster — and where his kids play now — the mob swarmed around a pickup truck from which he planned to speak, bathing in the glow of towering floodlights and chanting in two languages for their hometown hero.
The scene was straight from a Hollywood script: The local boy made good, the 44-year-old son of a bartender and a maid, returning as a presidential candidate to the place where he ran his first race for city commissioner. The crowd erupted into thunderous applause when Rubio hopped into the bed of the pickup, grabbing a microphone and waving to a sea of familiar faces. There was just one problem: Rubio’s microphone wasn’t working, and the crowd couldn’t hear him.
It was a fitting metaphor for a campaign obsessed with optics but often unable to master the fundamentals. Rubio, quick on his feet as always, snagged a bullhorn and pressed ahead. Once more the crowd went wild. Here again the talent shone through, and the presentation was magnificent: Rubio delivering a bilingual address from a bullhorn, pleading with his neighbors to keep their shared dream alive, promising them, “I will always be the son of this community.”
Unfortunately, many of the remarks were impossible to hear. And his assembled supporters, especially those near the back of the crowd, began trading glances with shrugged shoulders and disappointed looks. Rubio had everything going for him — the stagecraft, the anticipation, the loyal audience, the unteachable flair, and the emotional connection — but it just wasn’t enough.
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.