One of the important tests of character in politics is the willingness to stay and fight when the going gets tough, to stand your ground and be loyal to your supporters and your cause, even when the odds are against you, even when people are telling you to cut bait and go home. We know Marco Rubio has that fight in him; we’ve seen it before, from his underdog challenge to Charlie Crist to his comeback from the disappointment of New Hampshire to his upbeat push to continue fighting Donald Trump in Florida right now. But when people have invested their trust and their efforts in you, character and judgment also call for knowing when to stop fighting and cut a deal. The time for Rubio to do that is now – if not today, then no later than after Thursday’s debate. You have undoubtedly read many efforts in the past week by Cruz supporters, Trump supporters, Kasich supporter(s), liberals or anti-Trump party-unity Republicans to convince Rubio to get out of the race. But let me focus mainly on why striking a deal now to be Ted Cruz’s running mate would be in Rubio’s best interests, and is therefore something Rubio’s supporters should now actively desire.
Gaming Out Rubio’s Future
Let’s start by taking stock of where Rubio’s career stands right now. His political talents are undimmed: his speaking skills, charisma, aspirational biography and message, and one of the most important attributes in politics, flexibility as a communicator to different audiences and in different settings. His favorable ratings remain sky-high with Republican voters, consistently the highest of anybody who ran in the 2016 field besides Ben Carson, and despite all the brickbats thrown at him on immigration, most polls until yesterday were still showing more Republican voters would be satisfied with a Rubio nomination than with any other candidate. His talents as a “closer” have been on constant display – through Super Tuesday, he was the best in the field at winning over late deciding voters. All of these things should continue to be true of Rubio in years to come, regardless of how the past week has gone. To the extent that Rubio is looking – as all politicians do, at least at his age – at his future, he should avoid throwing away the value of those assets.
The Next Campaign
On the other hand, Rubio has chosen not to run again for the Senate, so he will be out of work in January and out of elected office for the next two years unless he ends up as the Vice President. He could run for Governor or for another Senate term in 2018, but a Senate race would mean facing entrenched incumbent Bill Nelson, and if his eyes are on another national run in 2020, he’d be peppered with questions about whether he’s actually going to stick around and do the job. And if Rubio stays in this race just to focus on Florida and then loses Florida to Donald Trump – a very significant risk – he will find his standing in Florida politics significantly diminished, and face the possibility that his political career could be over at age 44.
Could Rubio run for national office again in the future? Republicans have a pretty long history of nominating candidates on their second or sometimes third try – Romney, McCain, Dole, H.W. Bush, Reagan. One of those candidates (Bush) did so from the springboard of being Vice President, and two others (Romney and Reagan) did so from outside public office, having spent four years planning their next run with no other real responsibilities to distract them. Romney in 2008 ran a campaign with some broad similarities to Rubio’s (despite their very different records), and dropped out immediately after Super Tuesday, resulting in Mike Huckabee passing him for formal “runner-up” status to John McCain. But with both McCain and Huckabee out of the running, Romney was able to consolidate his status as the frontrunner and get an earlier start raising money and endorsements four years later. If the GOP is out of power again after this election, Rubio could position himself to do that – but the longer he stays in this race bleeding support and potentially losing his home state, the more he will look diminished and overshadow some of the successes he’s had in this race.
But my argument here is not that Rubio should just slink away, but that he should use the leverage he has right now to cut a deal to be Ted Cruz’s running mate. Why should Rubio want to do this?
First, a VP deal keeps him on the trail and in the public eye in a way that an endorsement or quietly dropping out would not – while most of the other dropped-out candidates have vanished from sight, Rubio’s status as VP-nominee-in-waiting would ensure him more press coverage (especially for a role as attack dog against Trump) than the usual campaign surrogate. If Cruz is the nominee, it keeps Rubio on the national stage for the rest of 2016. That alone not only keeps him visible, but keeps him plugged in to a national network of donors, and allows him to build ties to Cruz’s superior campaign organization – all assets he could use in a future campaign even if 2016 ends badly. Sure, losing VP candidates have had a rough go in the past (aside from people like Mondale who had actually been VP, since 1900 only FDR became president after being the VP on a losing national ticket, although Bob Dole would come back to become Senate Majority Leader and a presidential nominee and Paul Ryan would become Speaker of the House), but Rubio is young and gifted and likely to avoid some of the differing pitfalls that did in figures as diverse as Sarah Palin, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman.
Second, he could actually become the Vice President. That’s its own spot in the history books, and even if Cruz’s youth and clean ethical record mean there would be low odds of taking office mid-term, the VP job is not a bad one for guy with small children and a future. Cruz’s toxic relationships with Capitol Hill Republicans mean that a Cruz Administration would have great need for a good-cop ambassador to build bridges with Congress, a task Rubio is well-suited to, and unlike, say, John Kasich, he’s close enough philosophically to Cruz that he could expect to have a real role in the Administration and not just be the guy who goes to funerals. And Al Gore in 2000, Bush in 1988, Mondale in 1984, and Nixon in 1960 and 1968 all demonstrated the power that a sitting or former VP has in securing the nomination later on.
Could a Cruz-Rubio ticket win? I have argued throughout this campaign, and continue to believe, that Rubio would be the best general election candidate for the GOP, giving us the best shot to win the White House and defeat Hillary Clinton. As far as polling is concerned, that’s true even in the latest general election polls taken after Super Tuesday. I won’t belabor that point here, as it is no longer relevant to consider Rubio as having a shot at the nomination. But Trump is a truly terrible general election candidate, whereas Cruz at least polls mostly around even with Hillary, is a disciplined, energetic candidate with a good organization, and could keep the party together and have a puncher’s chance. Adding Rubio to the ticket could only help drive home the contrasts between the GOP and Hillary Clinton. Certainly, you couldn’t count them out.
Third, it’s mostly a no-downside play. The longer Rubio stays in the race, the more likely that Cruz supporters will blame Rubio rather than their own candidate if Trump beats Cruz (Ted Cruz is nothing if not an expert at convincing his supporters that he would have brought them victories if other Republicans had not betrayed him). If Rubio gets out now and Trump still beats Cruz, then after Trump’s inevitable defeat, Rubio would enter 2020 in a position to argue that Cruz had his head-to-head shot and lost due to the narrowness of his appeal. The same is true if Cruz is the presidential nominee – even moreso, because the party would undoubtedly conclude that a more moderate and/or likeable nominee was needed to win the next time, and Rubio could make a convincing case to conservatives that anybody else trying to fit that bill will be to his left. Either way, Trump will be gone, and Cruz would be weakened; Jeb and Kasich aren’t coming back in four years and Chris Christie has ended his career. There’s still a deep bench of other alternatives (Ryan, Haley, Walker, Jindal, Paul, etc.), but Rubio would be able to argue that he played the good soldier for Cruz, which has the double benefit of winning him back to the good graces of his supporters.
Fourth, cutting a deal now squeezes out Kasich. Kasich appears to be running for the Vice Presidential job; his whole strategy is a brokered-convention strategy, but since he can’t possibly believe that a compromise between Cruz and Trump supporters would result in a Kasich nomination, the logical play would be to use his delegates as a bargaining chip to get a spot on the ticket. If Cruz announces that he’s chosen Rubio as his Vice Presidential nominee, it cuts the legs out of Kasich’s rationale for staying in the race (except to cut a similar deal with Trump), which in turn helps ratchet up the pressure on Kasich to quit, leaving Cruz the only anti-Trump game in town.
Rubio Can Get Better
What were Rubio’s weaknesses in 2016, that have led him to collapse after Super Tuesday? Let’s examine the list and consider which of them can be fixed in time to run again in the future. It turns out most of them can.
One, momentum. Through Super Tuesday, Rubio had won more votes than Ted Cruz outside of Cruz’s home state of Texas (24% to 22%), and more than three times as many votes nationally as John Kasich. But in the post-Super Tuesday states, Rubio’s support abruptly collapsed – aside from a landslide win in Puerto Rico, Rubio has dropped below 17% in the other eight post-Super Tuesday contests, falling to single digits and below even Kasich in Maine, Michigan and Mississippi (a geographically disparate enough group of states that it can’t be written off as just a bad local problem). He got just 10% of late deciders in Michigan, 4% in Mississippi.
As I explained Saturday before the first results came in, Rubio’s type of “Unity” candidate – unlike a “Factional” candidate with a hard base in the party – is apt to see his support evaporate in a hurry once he no longer looks like a winner. That’s exactly what happened – his first win, in Minnesota, came too late in the race and too late in the evening to reverse the “Rubio doesn’t win anywhere” narrative. Had he pulled out Virginia, which he lost by 2.8 points, that could have been quite different. By now, staking it all on Florida, he’s had to surrender one of his chief assets (being the guy who competes in every state) in favor of a Kasich-like camping-out in a single state while Cruz and Trump play for the rest of the map.
But momentum by its nature is specific to a particular campaign; four or eight years later, all anybody will remember is that Rubio ran in a crowded field and was in the race pretty far.
Two, structure and timing. Rubio was never quite able to either get rid of Cruz and consolidate the conservative “lane” nor shake Kasich and consolidate the moderate/establishment voters, and before that he took too long shaking Jeb and Christie, which in turn delayed him in raising money and attacking Trump earlier. What if, what if, what if: the lament of many a losing campaign. But again, these are problems particular to 2016.
Three, a poorly run campaign. A variety of recent reports have illustrated what many of us suspected for a while: unlike Cruz, Rubio’s campaign was never as good as the candidate. He simply hired too many backward-looking veterans of the Romney campaign rather than innovators, and yet lacked the commanding financial advantages and consolidated “lane” to run a Romney-style primary campaign. But campaign teams can be replaced, and candidates can learn from the mistakes of past losses (even Ronald Reagan sacked his campaign manager on the day of the New Hampshire primary in 1980).
Four, youth and gravitas. Rubio had to work hard to overcome establishment-y voters’ preference for gray-headed proven executives like Jeb Bush, and his late flurry of sometimes very personal attacks against Donald Trump, while successful in getting inside Trump’s head, seem to have driven a faction of his supporters to Kasich, a Governor 20 years Rubio’s senior who talks about the 1980s and 1990s, high-mindedly refuses to criticize Trump, and styles himself as “the only adult in the room.” Polls have showed that one of the youthful-looking Rubio’s weak spots – even compared to Cruz, who’s the same age and a lot less experienced in office – is experience. Even if he doesn’t hold any more offices, the passage of some more time and the general sense that “this guy has waited his turn” can fix a lot of that.
Fifth, immigration. Really the one main Achilles heel that has dogged Rubio from the beginning has been the immigration issue’s unusual prominence in this cycle and his “Gang of Eight” experience, and a NY Times hit piece on the Gang of Eight right on the eve of Super Tuesday was expertly timed to set off a talk radio barrage against him on this issue over the past week and help take out the candidate the Times feared most in a general election. This doesn’t go away the way his other weaknesses do, but the issue environment changes every cycle, and the status quo on immigration is unsustainable: if Hillary wins, especially if a Trump nomination decimates the GOP in Congress, we’ll be talking in 2020 about “amnesty” in the past tense. By contrast, if Cruz wins, we may finally see some confidence restored that the federal government is serious about border security. Either way, the political conditions could be a lot more auspicious. And again, dedicating himself to supporting Ted Cruz is a good way for Rubio to win over more converts among people who care about this issue.
Cruz Still Needs Rubio
The other factor for Rubio to consider is timing. I believe that – whatever the egos on all sides may say – if Rubio offered a deal today, Cruz would know he needs to take it. That may not be true forever, especially if Kasich wins Ohio, Rubio loses Florida, and Kasich wants to bargain.
Why I think Cruz still needs help is similar to why I argued all along that Rubio would run stronger one-on-one against Trump than Cruz would: because Cruz’s support is so heavily concentrated with Evangelical Christians and “Very Conservative” voters. We don’t have exit polls for March 5 or for Idaho or Hawaii (based on the map of Idaho, Cruz undoubtedly cleaned up with conservative Mormons last night, previously a likely Rubio stronghold), but let’s update the charts I’ve been using of each candidate’s strength across these groups:
As you can see, Cruz improved a bit last night, but he remains very, very dependent on his two overlapping core groups, both of which are likely to get a lot scarcer as we run out of Southern and other deep-red states as the calendar moves forward. (Also, Cruz doing well with Mississippi “moderates” is a bit like when Kasich did well with “Very Conservative” Vermonters – it may just be a regional difference in defining the spectrum). His biggest risk if Rubio gets out is that the more moderate Rubio supporters will drift off in increasing numbers to Kasich, and the exit polls from Michigan in particular suggest that is a threat Cruz can’t lightly ignore. Having Rubio out on the trail making an explicit stop-Trump party-unity pitch can make a big difference in finishing off Kasich and keeping wavering Rubio supporters dedicated to the unity ticket. The announcement of such a ticket – highly unusual in a primary campaign – would itself be a major news event that would dominate discussion for days, and would have a galvanizing effect on the morale of anti-Trump Republicans who are now so consumed with fighting each other over who should and shouldn’t drop out.
Moreover, in the states where Rubio closed well, we saw a fair amount of surprising anecdotal evidence that late-breaking deciders were picking Rubio over Trump – which sounds crazy, since they are such opposites, but for voters focused on beating Hillary, Rubio’s electability pitch was swaying people otherwise inclined to just vote the frontrunner. If Cruz wants to avoid losing some of those Rubio votes to Trump, he needs to dial up his ability to win primaries against Trump, and can’t just keep slogging out the delegate fights.
In short, there is every reason – looking strictly from the perspective of the self-interests of all the players – why it would make sense by the end of this week for Rubio to cut a deal to become Cruz’s running mate, and for Cruz to make that deal.