Donald Trump is favored to sweep all five Eastern states holding primaries on Tuesday. The best his opponents can hope to do is to limit the damage: Win unbound delegates friendly to their campaign in Pennsylvania, hold Donald Trump under 50% in Connecticut, win proportional delegates in Rhode Island, and win a couple Congressional district in Maryland and Connecticut. Simply put for those who don’t want to nominate a man who has praised Planned Parenthood and declared his desire to have U.S. Troops slaughter the children of terrorists, this week has one goal: limit the damage.
Trump may yet be stopped, particularly if conservatives in places like Indiana and Nebraska hold firm next month. Still, it’s going to be a long dour fight with the chance that Republicans will nominate a big donor for Hillary Clinton as their candidate or will face a divisive nomination battle at the convention. It didn’t have to be that way.
It’s not hard to imagine an April where Presidential campaigns have become a formality and Republicans have coalesced behind a single candidate. That candidate. Senator Marco Rubio? As it is now Senator Rubio’s best contribution to the ongoing primaries is to try and get his name removed from the ballot and hold his delegates until the convention.
Rubio finished a strong third in Iowa five percent behind Ted Cruz, before finishing a disappointing fifth in New Hampshire. He then bounced back to finish second in South Carolina and Nevada, and remained competitive in many Super Tuesday states and won Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, but was forced out of the race on March 15th.
There are many reasons cited for Rubio’s failure. The “Robot Rubio” moment in the New Hampshire debate where he repeated the same line four times in the course of a debate hurt him. Yet, one decision has to loom larger than any other and it was the strategy that was foundational to his campaign: the 3-2-1 strategy which relied on finishing third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina with a focus on bigger, larger, more diverse states which would be the focus of the Rubio’s general election campaign.
There was a certain logic to Rubio’s strategy. With seventeen candidates in the race, why put bet your political career in the hands of the people of two states? Why risk that much. Rather, put out a lot of feelers and do well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire to get by.
However, even if Rubio had succeeded in finishing second in New Hampshire, his strategy would have been problematic in terms of actually winning South Carolina because it allowed for two people to win states before he did and in the early going, that momentum is a powerful force and a powerful influencer. At the same, his lack of focus and weak ground game in both states cost him support that he could won if he’d been running to win.
If Rubio had built a stronger ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire with more field offices and a real effort to win those states, the results could have been quite different. It’s not hard to imagine Rubio winning Iowa and even with the Robot Rubio moment, he probably would have finished no lower than third in New Hampshire (depending on how much support Kasich got.) Losing to Rubio in New Hampshire would probably have forced Bush out earlier and if Cruz lost to Rubio in two straight states, he would have lost support to Rubio in South Carolina, and with that loss combined with gaining more establishment support in South Carolina by showing strength elsewhere, Rubio would have won South Carolina and knocked Cruz out of the race. While Trump wouldn’t have been done, Rubio would have been in a good position to win the majority of states that voted on Super Tuesday including states Cruz lost such as Georgia, Arkansas, and Virginia and momentum would have helped Rubio win elsewhere and Trump would have probably dropped out by now to avoid continuing to lose.
Instead events have transpired as they have.
There’s a lesson to be learned here for Rubio (who is reportedly being urged to try again in a future election) as well as for any candidate who may run in the future. Rubio lost because his strategy was too timid in the early states. Voters need to be convinced a candidate can win. Anyone who wants to run for President as a Republican under our current system had better figure out a strategy to win either Iowa or New Hampshire and be prepared to compete in both. If they can’t do that, they might as well stay home.