Marco Rubio wins tonight in Iowa — by coming third. That, I suspect, will be the on dit among the commentariat this evening in America. And it might not be wrong. According to the latest polls, Rubio is the only candidate to have gained momentum in the run up to today’s caucuses. If the polls aren’t off — big if, I know — he should emerge as the only viable ‘establishment’ candidate that can stop Trump or Cruz. He will emerge as the hope of the rational versus the irrational, the pragmatist’s choice against the stupid and crazy. At least that’s how the ‘narrative’, as strategists like to call it, could develop. (There are reasons to think President Rubio could be just as dangerous as Trump, if not more so, but that’s for another post.)
Rubio could still stun everybody and win outright tonight. The latest Des Moines Register survey suggests he is currently the most popular ‘second-choice’ among Republican Iowans, and that a large number of Republican voters remain undecided. Consider Rubio’s benign favourability ratings together with the fact that the Trump vote remains mysterious, and it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that he could pull off a dramatic victory. Still, it’s a long shot.
So here is a more credible scenario by which Rubio could advance. Say Ted Cruz wins narrowly tonight, thanks to that ‘ground game’ everyone has been talking about. Trumpmania could begin to implode — see Howard Dean’s collapse in the 2004 Democratic nomination process as a model — and Rubio would then emerge as Cruz’s more serious rival. Cruz would seem ascendant, of course, but there’s no escaping the fact his polling has been stagnating since the turn of the year, and that Rubio would be the man with the Big Mo. Move on to New Hampshire — where Cruz, Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich are currently all polling between 9 and 13 per cent — and Rubio could find himself picking up masses of mainstream Republicans as they decide that he is their best bet for winning the presidency.
That scenario, while not implausible, does overlook certain glaring weaknesses in Rubio’s campaign. For a start, while his Iowa polling has ticked up, he is still sinking nationally. He’s currently fifth in New Hampshire, behind even Jeb Bush. Then add the reports that Rubio’s campaign has been oddly lazy and dysfunctional. Or the fact that, far from being a Latino political superstar, Rubio has so far been a flat-footed campaigner. His performances in the TV debates have shown him to be a bit irritating. He talks too quickly, for one thing, which never got anyone elected. Plus, while he has been casting himself as ‘anti-establishment’, it emerged today that Goldman Sachs employees now support his candidacy. In the current climate, the vampire squid endorsement is about as useful as a statement of support from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The one thing you can say for sure about Rubio is that he hasn’t peaked too early. But he might not peak at all. An alternative scenario to the one described above is that Trump wins tonight, then storms New Hampshire and blows his rivals away. The Republican Party’s overlords, having shot themselves in the foot by ‘front-loading’ the nomination process in order to stop cripplingly long and bitter campaign fights, would have to swallow hard and embrace ‘The Donald’. By April, Marco Rubio could be the presumptive Republican nominee — or he could be standing behind Trump pledging to make America great again.