Marco Rubio Campaign Long on Style, Short on Substance

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at Civic Hall about the 'sharing economy' on October 6, 2015 in New York City. Rubio, who has been experiencing a slight uptick in the polls after strong debate performances, has a second book out in paperback this Tuesday called American Dream: …
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

How the presidential candidates talk about their fundraising revels a lot about themselves and their campaigns. That’s why, although the third quarter fundraising reports recently filed with the FEC won’t predict who is going to win the Republican nomination, they help cut through candidate spin for a sober assessment of the state of the race.

Setting aside for now the other candidates in the Republican race, Marco Rubio’s FEC filings go to the heart of a problem facing his candidacy. First, his campaign seriously overstated how much he had raised in the third quarter. His campaign told donors, and leaked to the press, that Rubio had raised $6 million over the summer and had $11 million in the bank.

The $6 million haul for the quarter was seen widely as a disappointing number for Rubio, but these concerns were mitigated by the fact that he had more money in the bank than presumed frontrunner Jeb Bush. It turns out both numbers, however, were inflated.

Rubio actually raised just $5.7 million in the quarter. This may seem a minor difference, but the amount the campaign claimed is a 5 percent inflation of the actual amount. Rubio’s cash-on-hand, however, wasn’t $11 million, but $9.5 million, around 15 percent less than reported and less than Jeb Bush.

Rubio’s cash-on-hand at the beginning of October is roughly the same as it was at the beginning of July, when the campaign reported $9.8 million in the bank. This indicates that Rubio’s campaign spent every dollar raised in the third quarter. The $5.7 million the campaign raised apparently went to sustaining the campaign.

Rubio’s spending was double the amount spent by Carly Fiorina, who raised some $1 million more than Rubio and is roughly in the same polling position. Rubio’s spending is almost the same as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who raised more than twice the amount Marco did.

These figures raise a serious question: How is the Rubio campaign spending its money? He often points out that he has a “lean” campaign operation with just 54 full-time staffers. His staff, however, is based primarily in Washington and he has very little field footprint in the early voting states.

Rubio has spent far less time in the early voting states than other campaigns. He has campaigned just a combined 3 weeks in both Iowa and New Hampshire so far this year. By comparison, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has campaigned for 6 weeks in New Hampshire alone. Voters in both of these states place a high premium on retail politics, expecting to see the candidates several times before voting.

The lack of any real campaign infrastructure for the Rubio campaign in the early states suggests a major disconnect between establishment national figures promoting Rubio and grass roots voters. Indeed, in the third quarter, less than 20 percent of Rubio’s donations came from contributors donating $200 or less. Carly Fiorina raised three times Rubio’s amount of small dollar donations. Donald Trump raised more than 3 times Rubio from small donors without any fundraising operation.

Rand Paul, whose position in the polls is within the margin of error, raised more money from small donors than Marco Rubio. That statistic alone ought to pour cold water on the notion of a healthy and growing Rubio campaign.

Rubio’s campaign has been aggressively trying to spin the disappointing fundraising numbers. The campaign told donors that their efforts were hampered by summer, when many donors are “on vacation.” Obviously, the calendar didn’t hurt any other campaigns’ efforts. They also rounded the numbers up considerably, most especially to try to argue that they had more money in the bank than Jeb Bush.

The Rubio campaign staffers often claim they have a lean operation and are very frugal with their money. They have put out press releases about buying furniture on Craigs-list, for example. Without much of a campaign operation in voting states, though, one wonders why they are buying furniture at all. Rubio’s campaign trumpets the fact that it flies coach when traveling, but if Rubio isn’t campaigning in the early states, where are they flying?

A small item in a recent story on Rubio’s campaign explains a lot about the Senator’s challenge:

Jeff Sadosky, spokesman for a Super PAC backing Rubio, Conservative Solutions, says Rubio’s message — and talent at communicating it — is undervalued.

“The right message coming from the party’s best messenger is as effective a turnout machine as anything you can put together,” said Sadosky. “I can also say that Conservative Solutions PAC stands ready to provide the support needed to ensure that Marco’s message is heard by voters in the early states.”

Marco Rubio is usually good at giving speeches. His performance in the most recent Republican debate was widely praised by national pundits and editorial boards. Rubio has a compelling personal story and he tells it well at every possible opportunity. He is young and telegenic, long on a often-told personal story but short on policy details.

His campaign seems centered on courting mega-donors like Shelden Adelson, who could bankroll Rubio’s Super PAC. The perceived promise of his candidacy is likely resonating in some boardrooms. It seems to be struggling, though, in that place that matters: the hearts and minds of voters.

Eight years ago, a large portion of the Democrat electorate fell in love with a candidate who was young, telegenic and gave a great speech. His personal narrative was long on hope, but short on specifics. He too, focused a lot of energy and campaign rhetoric on foreign policy.

The key difference, though, is that his campaign started in the grass roots and gradually won over the national party’s establishment. Rubio is taking the same script, but trying to reverse it. His style has won many hearts in the Republican establishment, but his lack of substance is hitting a road block with actual voters.

Good campaign spin, or fudging fundraising numbers, can win you a news cycle or two, but eventually people get around to voting. On current trends, that will deliver Rubio’s biggest disappointment of all.