The heart of Marco Rubio’s appeal can be summed up in one phrase — a conservative with charisma. Ever since Ronald Reagan, GOP voters have been looking for the party-uniting person who combines conservative convictions with the ability to reach and win over new constituencies. Rubio’s not the most conservative candidate in the field, but his charisma arguably made him the most electable conservative, and his charisma would help unite a party desperate for victory.
A candidacy built on charisma is far more vulnerable to debate failures than, say, a candidacy built around a heroic biography or a ground-breaking economic program. After all, if the hero-candidate stumbles, he’s still a hero. If the reform-candidate stumbles, he’s still a reformer. But if a charisma-candidate is seen to wilt under pressure, what’s left? Thus, the problem with Rubio’s debate performance wasn’t just that it reinforced a pre-existing criticism that’s often made against good political communicators (that he’s dependent on talking points), it also eviscerated his core strength.
Looking back on 2012, it’s increasingly apparent that the debates ultimately favored Mitt Romney over Newt Gingrich in part because Mitt built his case around his biography and “turnaround” expertise, not his personal magnetism. Thus, his debate stumbles were less jolting, and his debate successes gave him more upside. Newt, however, built a campaign around his allegedly matchless skill as a debater (Remember his constant call for Lincoln/Douglas-style debates, even in the general election?), and when Mitt bested him before Florida, his collapse was nearly immediate. After riding high in South Carolina, Gingrich lost every state except for his native Georgia.
In many ways, the charisma argument is the most perilous. Every gaffe and every stumble erodes the case, and each good performance makes less impact. Over time, if you’re just good, then you’re bad, and if you’re actually bad, then it’s a disaster. Last week in New Hampshire, Rubio suffered a disaster.