Rubio Bets on Iowa as New Hampshire Fades Away

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Marco Rubio is set to dominate the airwaves in Iowa over the next three weeks ahead of the caucuses. Rubio’s campaign and affiliated super PAC, in fact, are planning to spend more money on TV in the first caucus state than all the other campaigns combined.

Rubio has spent far less time than most other candidates in the Hawkeye State, where voters expect to personally interact with candidates. Rubio is currently polling a distant 3rd in Iowa, far behind current frontrunners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Rubio’s support in Iowa has changed little over the past two months, although his relative standing has been helped by a considerable drop in support for neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Meanwhile, the latest poll in New Hampshire sees lots of movement for many Republican candidates, while Rubio’s support is flat. The new survey from Monmouth University found Donald Trump extending his lead in New Hampshire. Trump now has the support of 32 percent of likely primary voters, up six points since November.

Tied for second are Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich, with 14 percent support each. Cruz’s support is up 5 points, while Kasich has gained 3 points.

Rubio is fourth with 12 percent support, unchanged since November. Rubio’s lack of movement in New Hampshire is surprising because his campaign and affiliated super PACs have spent millions on TV ads in the first primary state. Like Iowa, Rubio has spent far less time campaigning in New Hampshire than many of his rivals.

Rubio’s lack of movement in New Hampshire, despite a multi-million ad blitz, suggests his campaign’s strategy to blanket Iowa airwaves to make up for few personal visits may have serious limits. The two frontrunners in Iowa, Trump and Cruz, are planning to spend just a fraction of what Rubio is spending on TV time in Iowa, devoting most of their resources to organizing and turnout.

Rubio, in a sense, is campaigning everywhere and nowhere. He is polling in the middle of the pack in all four early voting states. He hasn’t spent a lot of time campaigning in any one of the early states, preferring to simply best the other candidates with appeals to the Republican establishment.

While his direct challengers, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, are aggressively campaigning in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, Rubio is focusing on being a national, broadly acceptable candidate to different wings of the Republican party.

“More people in Iowa see Marco on Fox and Friends than see Marco when he is in Iowa,” Terry Sullivan, Rubio’s campaign manager told the New York Times.

This can work to a point. The challenge, especially in the first four states, is that early voting is not simply a contest of name identification. Succeeding in the Iowa Caucuses, especially, requires a large organizational push as participation requires a significant time commitment and preparation. Voters in New Hampshire put a particular emphasis on personally meeting the candidates running, often keeping track of how many times they’ve seen a Presidential hopeful.

Rubio’s multi-million ad buy in the Granite State doesn’t seem to have increased his support there. Not only have John Kasich and Ted Cruz eclipsed him there, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is only four points behind Rubio, having gained three points in support since November.

Rubio’s advantage is that by not committing to any of the early states, it is easier for him to beat expectations. The risk, though, is that other candidates move past him and make an equal claim on the establishment wing of the party. It would indeed be historic to come in 3rd or 4th in all of the early states and still win the nomination.

Since 1976, every Republican nominee has won either the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.

That said, the 2016 campaign is already rewriting the rules of campaigning. Jeb Bush has spent far more money on TV advertising than any other candidate, with dismal returns. He has spent many times more, in fact, than either of the two current frontrunners, Trump or Cruz.

Which GOP candidate has spent the next largest amount on TV advertising? Marco Rubio. We’ll know shortly whether that was a good bet.