Marco Rubio, the Spoiler

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), flanked by his family, speaks at a primary night rally on March 15, 2016 in Miami, Florida. Rubio announced he was suspending his campaign after losing his home state to Republican rival Donald Trump. (Photo by )
Angel Valentin/Getty Images

Senator Marco Rubio ended his quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination swaddled in warm feelings, at least from the punditocracy, which hailed his superb final debate performance, a weekend press conference denouncing Donald Trump that became a viral video, and a moving concession speech on Tuesday night after Rubio was crushed in his home state of Florida.

Those warm feelings might dissipate when it dawns on the #NeverTrump crowd that by refusing to get out of the race when his Florida defeat was clear, Rubio might very well have handed the nomination to their nemesis.

There’s no question that Rubio remaining in the race turned Missouri into a squeaker that Trump appears set to win by a handful of votes.

Suggestions that Rubio should drop out before March 15 and endorse Senator Ted Cruz – the one and only candidate with a shot at beating Trump – were often rebuffed by noting that Cruz polled poorly in Florida, and probably couldn’t have won the state’s jackpot of winner-take-all delegates even with Rubio’s wholehearted endorsement, especially since so many early votes were already locked in.  

But Rubio absolutely did cost Ted Cruz victory in Missouri by staying in the race, and he might have lost North Carolina for Cruz as well. The final tally there was Trump 40.2 percent, Cruz 36.8, Kasich 12.7, and Rubio 7.7. If even half of Rubio’s supporters went to Cruz, following a timely resignation and enthusiastic endorsement, he would have won.

The picture in Illinois is fuzzier because of its elaborate system for awarding delegates, but a healthy portion of Rubio’s 8.7 percent added to Cruz’s impressive 30.3 percent sure would have helped, especially if they were divided between tight districts in just the right way. The math doesn’t really add up for Rubio denying Cruz an outright win in Illinois, because Trump won with 38.8 percent, and it’s highly unlikely that every last Rubio supporter would have switched to Cruz, even if Rubio had dropped out and embraced Cruz.

The outcome on Tuesday night hewed very closely to the nightmare scenario envisioned by Trump opponents who urged Rubio to drop out weeks ago, when it was already crystal-clear his Titanic of a campaign would meet its iceberg in Florida. Rubio’s heartfelt deathbed speeches about the urgency of denying Trump the nomination are belied by his actions, which put his own political career and personal vanity ahead of that supposedly vital goal.  

You can tell how thoroughly Rubio understood the futility of his final stand by looking at the tiny venue he picked for his Tuesday night rally – the atrium of a basketball stadium. “The space couldn’t accommodate a very large crowd, but the crowd wasn’t very large,” writes Byron York in his Rubio obituary, noting that most of the people he spoke with were “soon-to-be-unemployed staff and volunteers,” plus their family members.

“Rubio and his audience were emotional on Tuesday night, but the result could not have come as a surprise,” observes Tim Alberta at National Review. “The writing had been on the wall for weeks, leaving allies and advisors – some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for this story to preserve relationships with the senator – lots of time to reflect.”

Evidently they didn’t use any of that time to reflect on how staying in the race would make it more difficult for anyone to block Trump’s path to the nomination.  

Jonathan Last has a lengthy examination of the foundational problems with the Rubio candidacy at the Weekly Standard, marred by his strange insistence on marginalizing the Gang of Eight immigration betrayal as a factor. Of course Gang of Eight is the key to understanding Rubio’s downfall. It cannot be diminished by citing whatever percentage of voters said immigration was their top issue in exit polls. Most of the far larger number who claim the economy is their top issue are thinking about immigration’s effect on the U.S. job market as well, and as Last goes on to document, the sense of betrayal felt by Rubio’s Tea Party voters over the Go8 sellout dwarfed their specific disagreements with immigration policy.

Every great success or failure attracts a swarm of retroactive prophets, so let’s retain some humility and avoid declaring Rubio doomed from the start.  The rationale for his candidacy was his youthful exuberance, the fresh face he brought to Republican politics, a solid conservative voting record, and his undeniable oratorical skill. That was a reasonable resume, but once the primary was under way, it became clear Rubio couldn’t put together a nationwide base. There were red flags all over Rubio’s home turf of Florida, and the early primary states, as Tim Alberta points out:

In one of 2016’s great unsolved mysteries, he spent much of the summer avoiding voters, so conspicuously absent that opposing campaign officials would ask reporters about his whereabouts. Officially, Rubio aides often claimed that he was on private fundraising swings. And yet for the entire third quarter of 2015, spanning from July through September, Rubio raised less than $6 million — a haul dwarfed by those of Bush, Cruz, and Ben Carson. Even Carly Fiorina raised more.

At the same time, news clips piled up detailing Rubio’s poor attendance record in the Senate. Stories alleged he’d missed half of his committee meetings; others claimed he had the Senate’s worst voting record. It was enough to prompt multiple Florida newspapers to pen editorials demanding his resignation. The “truant senator” narrative, on top of his absences from the trail and his lackluster fundraising, gave pause to Rubio’s friends and foes alike. “He’s not visiting the early states and organizing. He’s not raising money. And he’s got the worst Senate voting record,” Rick Tyler, the Cruz campaign’s former national spokesman, recalls thinking during that period. “So then people began to wonder: What exactly is he doing?”

Rubio grievously underestimated the damage done to him by Jeb Bush’s scorched-earth campaign against his protege, the ill-conceived immigration shouting match with Ted Cruz (whose supporters can feel vindicated that their man indisputably won the exchange), and Chris Christie shooting his robot kneecaps off. He plodded on, convinced he would be the last man standing after Trump imploded, or maybe after Trump and Cruz destroyed each other: the Establishment-friendly, but conservative-in-his-heart, also-ran who was everybody’s third choice.

After the first few primaries, it became a running joke that conservative media was Rubio’s only real constituency, wishcasting him into a pole position he never really held. For a while there, just about every bit of political news was discussed in terms of how it affected Rubio’s epic quest for the nomination.  

A lot of smart people wanted Rubio to be the nominee so desperately that it clouded their reason. They were mesmerized by all those polls that showed Rubio crushing Hillary Clinton in the general election, but he needed to win the nomination first… and when he couldn’t, his supporters turned against stupid Republican primary voters with a snarling vengeance.

Whatever ups and downs he encountered along the way, the sad calculus of Rubio’s final days was clear several weeks ago, and it’s painfully clear that he cost the effort to block Trump dearly. If Governor John Kasich had not managed a win in his home state of Ohio, that effort would be all but over… and now #NeverTrump will have to deal with Kasich’s equally vain and doomed determination to stay in the race beyond his utility to their movement. Maybe he’ll land some solid punches on Cruz in that final debate Trump won’t be attending, and further weaken the only viable alternative candidate left in the race.  

The Republican primary has been like a shootout from “Get Smart,” where a tense standoff ends with everyone except the befuddled Maxwell Smart shooting each other… because the Republicans didn’t take their own electorate seriously until it was far too late, and they were too slow to abandon their “Better Dead Than Ted” determination to keep the nomination away from Cruz. Rubio’s input from political dealmakers and pundits kept him from hearing the fat lady singing, no matter how loudly she bellowed her doomsday notes.