Marco Rubio has lost his last primary. On Tuesday night, the Florida senator watched as Donald Trump was immediately declared the victor in his home state's Republican contest -- the race Rubio could not lose if he wanted to continue. The result will almost certainly touch off a despairing round of hand-wringing from the GOP establishment set, but in all likelihood, his Sunshine State defeat will not generate any surprise from the political press.
And that’s interesting, because for a long while, the media has served as Rubio’s most invested booster. Through the first 11 Republican debates, Rubio's most-repeated talking point was, "when I'm president," according to FiveThirtyEight (which apparently didn't track the phrase, “my father was a bartender”). And if voters largely doubted -- or rejected -- this premise, the media took Rubio at his word and treated his always-soon-to-come ascension as a fait accompli throughout the early weeks of the campaign.
Surely, people wrote, Trump's polling lead would collapse before the voting began. Surely, they said, Rubio would win Iowa -- or New Hampshire -- or South Carolina.
Yep, Rubio had the race just where he wanted it. Just wait and see.
Rubio took to the stage of his post-Iowa “victory” party like a conquering hero. “This is the moment they said would never happen,” the Florida senator proclaimed about a third-place Iowa finish that was, in fact, precisely what most observers predicted would happen. In fairness to Rubio, that evening’s delegate count left him in a promising position: He’d plucked seven delegates from the Iowa caucus, the same amount as Donald Trump and one shy of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s eight. At that moment, one could have believed that a tight three-man race was about to break out.
But by the morning after, the fact that Cruz had actually bested Trump in the caucus seemed to be on nobody’s mind. Instead, Iowa’s bronze medalist found himself the target of the media’s affection and the declared “real winner” of Iowa. History may remember the time that passed between Iowa’s results and the following morning as the Rubio campaign’s finest hour, as his operatives engineered a spin job so total that many didn’t even feel responsible for explaining why Rubio had won by finishing third. Rubio “looked and sounded like the night’s biggest winner,” tweeted Politico’s Eli Stokols, who went on to explain this weird idea like so:
But the GOP establishment can take consolation in Rubio’s strong third-place finish — and the fact that he is clearly on the sharpest upward trajectory while his two rivals, despite finishing ahead of him, are seeing their support tick down in recent weeks as the result of unrelenting attacks between them (Trump, specifically, was the target of a super PAC that spent $2.5 million attacking him in Iowa in the past two weeks). After Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll showed Rubio at 15 percent, the surprise 23 percent support he received Monday night is more than enough to claim momentum as the race turns to New Hampshire this week where he will make the case that he can be the establishment’s alternative to Trump and Cruz if mainstream Republicans consolidate behind him.
Forget the idea that caucuses are hard for pollsters to get a fix on, and that caucus-site wheeler-dealing sometimes consolidates voter results in novel fashion. The fact that Rubio bested expectations by 8 percentage points (for a third-place finish!) was proof enough that he was the one with momentum, and that his better positioned rivals were surely slowing.
Of course, we know what happened next. In New Hampshire, Rubio bombed on the debate stage, robotically offering up a prepared talking point again and again, thus earning himself the mockery of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The same observers who’d thought him to be Iowa’s real winner were left grasping and surprised by Rubio’s performance, though, they shouldn’t have. The editors of New Hampshire’s Conway Daily Sun got a glimpse of things to come after they’d met with Rubio in December. As the Daily Sun’s Erik Eisele reported:
We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.
Rubio finished fifth in New Hampshire. Still, this was all part of the plan! Rubio’s 3-2-1 strategy (third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina) would just have to become a 3-5-1 strategy, that’s all. (Ahead of the South Carolina primary, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) actually shot a video in which some poor physicist was made to explain “Marcomentum.”)
Still, the media boosted Rubio. As Igor Bobic reported:
The latest sign of Rubio's resurgence came on Tuesday in a glowing Politico article titled "Rubio surges back to electrify South Carolina." The website reported that the presidential hopeful was "dazzling crowds as 'the comeback kid'" -- a reference to the nickname Bill Clinton earned after a surprise second-place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire primary -- and claimed Rubio was "positioned to finish either second or third" in the South Carolina primary on Saturday. The strategy, according to several Rubio campaign aides quoted in the story, is for a loss decent showing in South Carolina to finally convince establishment voters to coalesce around the senator.
Rubio finished second in South Carolina, despite the endorsements of key in-state stakeholders, like Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. But, hey, second place is better than fifth, right? Once again, the Rubio campaign kicked into spin mode:
Missing from all of this was the fact that South Carolina’s primary doesn’t just hand out delegates to anybody. The statewide winner earns 29 delegates right off the top. The winner of each individual congressional district gets three delegates for each victory. Rubio carried exactly zero of South Carolina’s congressional districts. So, while his campaign was out celebrating another milestone, it was Donald Trump making off with the Palmetto State’s entire delegate haul.
This was, perhaps, the turning point for the Rubio effort to use the media as its cheerleader. At long last, it became obvious that not all second- and third-place finishes were alike -- that sometimes you have to do more than beat Carly Fiorina and Jim Gilmore.
This reality finally crashed down on Rubio in the worst way on Super Tuesday. The good news was that Rubio at last made history by winning his first state -- Minnesota. The bad news is that he lost nine more -- and in many critical instances, did not receive enough votes to clear the necessary threshold to claim even a small parcel of delegates for his troubles.
But it wasn’t until days before Super Tuesday’s crushing defeats that the Rubio campaign shifted from a strategy of slapping high-fives with the media after each primary loss to doing what so many people belatedly admitted needed to have been done all along -- take on Donald Trump directly.
Rubio’s reluctance to do so -- noted and criticized relentlessly by Jeb Bush’s campaign, despite it being guilty of the same thing -- was so noteworthy that the first time he actually attacked Trump by name was an event worth heralding. The vigor by which Rubio pursued this goal more than demonstrated that he knew he was making up for lost time. In the subsequent debates, Rubio threw everything but the kitchen sink at Trump, dogging him relentlessly for his lack of policy ideas, his “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his shady business deals, his Trump University scam, and the size of his hands and how they correlated to the size of his penis.
Rubio’s efforts were intense, and his grasp of the anti-Trump oppo was impressive, but without the time at his disposal to perform a gradual unmasking of the man he termed a “con artist,” his schtick read as pastiche. There was just too much, all at once -- no powerful thesis, no doggedly pursued throughline -- and the overall effect was perceived as a frantic, last-ditch gambit. Which, of course, it was.
It was round about this time that it became obvious to everyone that if Rubio couldn’t pluck Florida’s delegates from Trump’s grasp, the hopes of his campaign would be dashed and the “team-up to deny Trump a majority of the delegates” stopgap plan promoted by Mitt Romney and other establishment grandees would be gravely imperiled. And that’s when everyone learned what else Rubio had failed to do while celebrating his many losses -- build a campaign infrastructure in Florida. As Politico’s Marc Caputo reported:
According to Republican consultants and political observers from Tallahassee to Orlando to Tampa to Miami, there’s virtually no evidence that Rubio has the robust campaign in place that’s needed to shrink — let alone overcome — Trump’s lead, which ranges from 7 to 20 percentage points, depending on the poll. For weeks, his team hasn’t blanketed known early voters with mail, and they weren't calling Republicans statewide until just a few days ago.
“There needs to be a flashing red light on Rubio’s headquarters: This is an emergency,” said Tony Fabrizio, a national Republican pollster and consultant who worked on Gov. Rick Scott’s two successful campaigns.
Well, the time for emergency has long passed, and the Rubio campaign is over.
Marco Rubio now believes that Donald Trump should be thought of as disqualified for the presidency. He has warned voters that the reality television mogul is a “con artist” who could imperil the conservative movement. But Rubio did his bit in endangering the party he loves by repeatedly conning himself about his prospects, and getting high on the blinkered feedback his constant grandstanding was earning from a complacent media.
During Tuesday's exit speech, Rubio offered a dejected audience his best take on the matter, telling the assembled, “I am the beneficiary of the best group of supporters. ... There’s nothing more you could have done.”
It was an ironic remark, given that Rubio’s problem was that he didn’t do enough to redeem the faith of those supporters. “America is in the middle of a real political storm,” he told them, “a tsunami that we should have seen coming.”
From the back of the crowd, a Trump supporter who had snuck in unannounced jeered.
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.