In 2008, David Axelrod engineered what many political experts consider to be the greatest presidential campaign in the modern history of the United States, navigating Barack Obama, then a senator, through a difficult three-way Democratic primary before ultimately defeating Senator John McCain in the general election.
Eight years later, Marco Rubio drew frequent comparisons to Obama as he launched his own White House bid. Both campaigned for president as forty-something, first-term U.S. senators whose only previous political experience was in state legislatures. Both possess tremendous rhetorical talents and inspirational, only-in-America biographies. And both were hailed by the media, long before their presidential campaigns ever launched, as their party’s greatest hope for transforming the electorate and taking back the White House.
But that’s where the similarities ended. Obama built his coalition from a solid base of African-American support, and famously out-organized his opponents with a dominant field operation. Rubio, on the other hand, refused to identify with any one wing of the GOP and focused the bulk of his resources on television ads, convinced that sky-high Q-ratings were sufficient to connect with voters. In the final days of Rubio’s ill-fated campaign, Axelrod spoke with me about the senator’s candidacy and where it went wrong. Excerpts of that conversation follow, edited for length and clarity. — Tim Alberta
TIM ALBERTA: What was your reaction when you heard Marco Rubio prior to Super Tuesday launching the personal attacks on Donald Trump, talking about his “spray tan” and “small hands” and taking a generally ad hominem approach to the front-runner?
DAVID AXELROD: I thought it was ludicrous. I thought he had jumped the shark. I thought he failed spectacularly with his sojourn into open-mic night at the frat house. The thing is, the question about Rubio from the beginning was: Is he too callow? Does he look too young? Does he seem like a guy who can assume that role of president of the United States? And you know, in that moment he looked desperate and sophomoric.
I knew precisely the calculation he had made. Donald Trump is commanding a lot of attention by being outrageous, and his calculation was, ‘If I’m going to get coverage, I need to be equally outrageous and define myself as the alternative to Trump.’ But it had the unintended effect of diminishing him in rapid order. I don’t think his attacks in the Houston debate were over the line, and had it ended there, I don’t think it would have been damaging. But what followed, it seemed like he got more juvenile by the hour. The more outrageous he became, the more coverage he got, and he became seduced by that. He saw it was working, so why not ratchet it up a little? It sounded like a bunch of kids in the back room frantically writing up lines that would get him on TV. It was just a miscalculation.
Look, that 72 hours will live in his legend in a way that’s deeply negative. But I don’t think when you review this campaign, it’s the thing that cost him the race.
ALBERTA: So what did cost him the race? What are the major failures you would point to?
AXELROD: There are two things that I would point to. The first is a matter of miscalculation — this idea that if you try to appeal to every faction of the Republican base, you’ll be able to cobble together enough to be the nominee. Primaries are always about base. And you have to have a base in a divided field. And 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 his trying to be all things to all people, and that hurt him. He was a man without a country.
I don’t really believe that presidential campaigns boil down to positions so much as they boil down to moments.
And the second thing, obviously, if you’re going to point to one moment, would be the debate in New Hampshire. I don’t really believe that presidential campaigns boil down to positions so much as they boil down to moments. If issues mattered, Trump would certainly have some problems, because so much of what he says doesn’t make sense and doesn’t add up. But there’s a non-linear element of this process — it’s a long, long test, and it’s not just of how much you know, but it’s a test of how you handle pressure, because people intuitively understand this is the most pressure-filled, difficult job on the planet, and they’re watching to see how these candidates handle the pressure. I feel like Obama got elected — I mean, he was four years out of the Illinois senate, but a big reason he got elected was because at moments of maximum trial during the campaign, he handled the pressure well: the Reverend Wright stuff, some of the debates when everybody ganged up on him, the foreign-policy stuff, the Lehman Brothers collapse. One of the reasons he lost in the New Hampshire primary along the way was that voters actually wanted to see more. They wanted to see him run the whole gauntlet. They didn’t want to give him the keys to the car until they knew he could drive. And you know Rubio, especially given the fact that he, too, was a young and young-looking senator, I think one of the big questions was, Is he up to this? Can he handle the pressure of the presidency? And I think in that takedown with Christie, for a lot of people, that question was answered.
The sophomoric stuff with Trump, that added to the notion that he was callow and not ready. But I do think the Christie moment was the moment where he really went off the rails. And there was a certain rough justice to it, because it’s been little-noted, but it’s significant that Rubio’s super PAC as much as any entity was responsible for breaking Christie in New Hampshire. Their ads, I think, were devastating to Christie, and I don’t think that was lost on Christie.
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ALBERTA: To your first point, the Rubio camp felt confident from the outset that only a candidate with broad appeal across the party could win the nomination. They reject the idea of establishing a base with one bloc of voters and growing the coalition from there, and they say their theory would have been proven correct if Trump hadn’t blown up the entire primary. Do you think their theory was fundamentally flawed, or could it have worked without Trump in the race?
AXELROD: It’s problematic even without Trump. Their theory was, yes, Cruz would win most of the conservatives, but they can win enough of the conservatives; Yes, Carson and Cruz take up a lot of Evangelicals, but we can take some, too. Maybe their calculation was that Bush and all the governors were deficient and there would eventually be room among the establishment. Again, primaries are about base, and you can’t cobble it together by poaching a little bit of everybody else’s base.
My experience has been that you win primaries by having a base. We knew going into the primaries in 2008 that ultimately, despite what the Clinton world felt, Obama would have a strong and critical base among African Americans, and that was a great place from which to build. Now, we knew [we needed] white votes in order to grow and win, and Iowa ultimately activated that. But we knew if we were going to be competitive, we had to have a base. And [Rubio’s campaign] just never did. They were liked by everybody, but they were embraced by none of the bases. And the one base that was ultimately open to him perhaps more than he could have expected, because of the failures of the other campaigns, was this so-called establishment base, but you know, that’s a dicey base in a year when there’s so much rage among Republicans against their own establishment.
ALBERTA: And that’s what some Rubio folks have said — that even though that base opened up, we don’t want to brand ourselves as “establishment” in a political environment like this. But other Rubio allies agree with your argument, that you need a base to build from in order to win. So how would you balance those two competing imperatives if you were inside the Rubio campaign?
AXELROD: Hindsight is 20/20, so I have some sympathy with them. But, look, 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. He probably would have been better off just planting his flag there, because it feels like the Republican party is not headed for a good result in November, and there’s going to be a reckoning, and there’s going to be opportunity in the future. And it may have been that the best antidote to his deficits in this race would have been not to become juvenile but to be the adult from the start, and to be the guy who challenged Trump on substance and who was a truth-teller, and who didn’t try to be a guy who so overtly looked like he was pandering to each base so serially. In Iowa, he was signaling to the Evangelicals; in other places, he was re-invigorating his tea-party credentials. He very overtly was sending the message that ‘hey, I can be all things to all people,’ which only makes you look like a politician in a year when people hate politicians.
ALBERTA: Another criticism of the Rubio campaign, which runs on a parallel track to their refusal to identify a base of voters, was their refusal to identify any one state as a stronghold and invest heavily there. And that in turn fueled the perception that he wasn’t particularly well organized in any of the states. What was your reaction to how they approached the primary calendar, strategically speaking?
AXELROD: When you have a candidate as charismatic as Rubio, the people around him buy into the cult of personality. 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. Even with all the accolades and all the momentum we had, we wouldn’t have won. And you know, in addition to a base, you need a plan — a real, detailed plan on how you’re going to get from A to B, how you’re going to get 1,237 delegates, and which states are important, and where you’ve got the best chance to succeed.
If you don’t have a base, and you don’t know where your base is, it’s hard to plan.
I have to give Ted Cruz credit, because he had such a plan. It’s been sort of ripped apart a bit by Hurricane Trump, but he had a very well-conceived plan, and I think it probably would have worked had Trump not come along. The plan was to win Iowa by solidifying his hold on Evangelical voters there, and then survive New Hampshire. Where it went awry was South Carolina, where I think he would have won if Trump not been in the race. So he had a plan, and the plan hasn’t worked the way he hoped. But it was a plan. And he invested his resources accordingly. I didn’t see that on the Rubio side; there was nothing comparable. And that’s part and parcel of his problem. If you don’t have a base, and you don’t know where your base is, it’s hard to plan. When backed against a wall, they said they were going to finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. But I don’t think that was backed up by organizational investment; that was just something they invented to soothe donors.
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ALBERTA: Yes, but didn’t it appear the “3-2-1” strategy had a chance to succeed? He was poised to clear his competition from the establishment lane with a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire, before he imploded in the debate and finished fifth there.
AXELROD: The problem is that he didn’t claim the establishment lane. He was counting on the establishment lane claiming him when the others fell by the wayside. That’s not how it works in this business. The other guys are going to fight back. You can’t run millions of dollars of negative ads against Chris Christie and expect that he’s not going to go all Sopranos on you. You can’t usurp your mentor in Jeb Bush and expect that he’s going to sit passively by and allow that to happen. I just don’t think they accounted for that. They thought this would fall to them without actually claiming it. And they miscalculated that these other guys were going to fall without a fight.
Let me just say, though: I’ve been on the losing side as well as the winning side. Whenever you lose, everyone’s very generous with their observations and their suggestions on what you should have done, so I have some sympathy, because it’s tough to be out there running for president. And this guy hasn’t been a weakling out there. He’s been battling. But it’s impossible at this juncture not to say that for all the promise that he brought to this thing, their theory was flawed. His failure is partly a failure of performance, but also it’s largely a failure of theory.
ALBERTA: Did you find yourself buying into this notion that he represented the greatest threat to Democrats in the fall, that he would be the strongest GOP opponent to Hillary Clinton?
#related#AXELROD: These are all paper calculations. You know, I’m down here in Arizona, and I’m going to see the Cubs today. On paper, I think they’re going to win the World Series. But I’m also aware that things happen. Players under-perform relative to their expectations, they get hurt, things happen. So yes, on paper I think Rubio was perhaps the most threatening candidate to Hillary. But you have to run the campaign; you have to play the game. You don’t know how the game’s going to go. You don’t know if somebody’s going to misplay the ball and yield the winning run. And what we’ve learned is that [Rubio is] not a flawless player. He’s a guy who can make mistakes and for whom pressure can really be a problem.
The one thing about Hillary Clinton is that she is battle-tested. She makes mistakes as well, and we’ve seen it. But there is something to be said for having run the track and played the game. And so I think on paper Rubio had great promise as a Republican nominee, but what we learned is he may not have been ready for it. And during the course of that general-election campaign, he might have made mistakes, might have been too cute by half, might have been faced with some pressure-filled moments and not performed and left people with a sense of concern. I’ve been around long enough to know you have to wait and see how people perform. Running for president, man, it’s an unbelievable gauntlet. And it should be, because the presidency is an even tougher gauntlet. So the process — as trivial and absurd and ridiculous as it can be at times — does test you. And the bottom line on the Rubio story is that when the big test came, he failed.
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.