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December 12th, 2017

Insight

Explaining Rubio's defeat

Byron York

By Byron York

Published March 22, 2016

MIAMI --- One of Marco Rubio's informal circle of advisers was nervously looking at his iPhone early Tuesday evening at Rubio's "Florida primary night celebration" at Florida International University. "The exit polls look brutal," he told me.

He pointed to a question that asked Florida voters how they felt about the federal government -- enthusiastic, satisfied, dissatisfied, or angry? Forty-five percent of the voters said they were dissatisfied, while another 40 percent said they were angry. How could the sitting senator from Florida -- the highest-ranking federal official in his state -- survive at the polls when 85 percent of his voters are dissatisfied or angry with the federal government he represents?

He didn't. Donald Trump beat Rubio 41 to 34 among voters dissatisfied with the federal government and 58 to 17 among voters angry with the government. Rubio won 50 to 25 among those satisfied with the federal government, but that was only 11 percent of the electorate. (The 2 percent who said they were enthusiastic about the federal government was too small to divide between the candidates.)

Nevertheless, at 6:00 p.m., Team Rubio was still looking for a way to stay in the race. What if he lost by single digits, maybe 5 to 9 percentage points? If that happened, and John Kasich pulled out Ohio, then maybe Rubio could stay in as part of the general #NeverTrump effort.

After all, Rubio had been saying for a couple of days that he would go on to Utah Wednesday, win or lose. He would campaign in the next primary state, and then do some fundraising in California, and then on and on. Of course, he had to say that. But when the votes actually came in Tuesday night, the results were as brutal as the exit polls. Trump won with 45.8 percent to Rubio's 27.0 percent -- almost exactly the margin the polls had predicted going into the primary.

A discussion was held. Rubio made the only decision he could, and by 8:15 p.m. he was at the podium, his family by his side, announcing that his campaign was over. "While it is not God's plan that I be president in 2016, or maybe ever," Rubio told a deeply disappointed crowd, "and while today my campaign is suspended, the fact that I've even come this far is evidence of how special America truly is, and all the reason more why we must do all we can to ensure that this nation remains a special place."

The Rubio campaign picked a small venue for such an important event. It was at the FIU Arena, a basketball facility that seats 5,000. But it was held in the rather narrow atrium outside the arena itself. The space couldn't accommodate a very large crowd, but the crowd wasn't very large. It was not, after all, an event for a general audience. John McCain used to joke that when his presidential campaign was on the skids, his audience dwindled to paid staff and blood relatives. The Rubio crowd wasn't that different.

Anybody there, including Rubio himself, might well have thought back to the sky-high hopes after his well-received campaign launch at Miami's Freedom Tower last April and ask: What happened?

But people weren't really in the mood for analysis. Several mentioned the brief phase of Rubio's campaign in which he turned into an insult comic targeting Trump. Everybody was disappointed in that. Or maybe it was the zillions of dollars in negative ads dropped on his head by his so-called friend Jeb Bush. But on a sad night, nobody wanted to dig too deeply.


Many were more likely to blame the voters -- they're just too angry -- than Rubio. Indeed, that might become the accepted pro-Rubio explanation of his loss; the country, in the middle of a temper tantrum, just wasn't in the mood for a fellow as sunny as Marco Rubio.

Certainly they didn't blame Rubio for his disastrous foray into comprehensive immigration reform. But the fact is, the Gang of Eight tarred nearly everything Rubio did afterward. First, much of the Republican base disapproved of the bill's basic provisions.

Second, Rubio's tortured efforts to distance himself from his own work looked like a massive flip-flop.

Third, many Republicans suspected Rubio of doing Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer's bidding, which is about the worst thing that can happen to a GOP senator.

Fourth, Rubio's defense of the bill sometimes boiled down to accusing rival candidates of being as bad as he was, which wasn't much of a defense.

And fifth, on the issue front, especially on economic policy, some voters who were especially concerned about jobs saw Rubio as an advocate for bringing more foreign workers to the U.S. at the expense of Americans already here. It was the problem that kept on giving.

In the end, Rubio told the crowd that he lost because he ran a hopeful and optimistic campaign in a year in which angry, pessimistic voters just weren't interested in hope and optimism.

Rubio is 44 years old. In the past, the Republican Party has been kind to losing candidates who give running for president a second try. And Rubio has plenty of time to give it another go. As I was leaving the FIU Arena, a man I had briefly chatted with earlier tapped me on the arm. He motioned to the big Rubio campaign bus and said simply,

"He'll be back."

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