On Monday, CNN aired a report that advisers in Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign were discussing whether to withdraw from the presidential race. Sitting in a meeting, Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant, leapt out of his chair and sped across town to the cable station’s Washington studio to denounce the story as “nonsense” and “100 percent false.”
But if those conversations weren’t taking place before today, they need to happen now.
Rubio continued his losing streak Tuesday with defeats in Michigan, Idaho, Mississippi, and Hawaii. He’s 2 for 24 overall, a meager .083 winning percentage. How bad is it? The Spanish-speaking Rubio has struggled among Hispanics, the group he was supposed to bring into the GOP. Rubio swept Puerto Rico, but front-runner Donald Trump won the Hispanic vote in Nevada and tied Rubio among Hispanics in Texas.
This week’s shellacking was so devastating that Rubio finished below the minimum threshold for earning delegates everywhere but Hawaii.
Rubio’s plan from the beginning was to run a lean operation and scale up as he moved from a third-place finish in Iowa, to second place in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. But instead of delivering on his 3-2-1 strategy, Rubio’s uneven 3-5-2 performance scared away donors. The build-out never moved past the planning stage.
Then, as Super Tuesday loomed, Rubio launched a vicious personal attack against Trump, mocking his “orange” spray tan and the size of his, ahem, hands. If candidates are like actors in a play, then Rubio is the young, idealistic party leader with a hopeful message. By imitating Trump, Rubio stepped out of character, and voters punished him for it.
That Rubio is still in the race is another demonstration of just how much super PACS have distorted the normal rules. As Rubio’s money has dried up, his Conservative Solutions PAC has picked up the slack. Before 2010’s Citizens United ruling, down-and-out candidates like Rubio would have been cashiered long ago.
Trump has embraced a core set of issues around immigration and trade that connect with the base and independent voters, and he’s learned to drive the news cycle with 140-character tweets. Rubio has run a conventional campaign that never found a way to allay concerns about his support for a Gang of Eight bill that critics viewed as pro-amnesty.
More recently, as the stop-Trump forces talked up Rubio as their potential savior, he began looking like the favorite of the establishment, the kiss of death this election year.
Rubio believes his fateful moment arrives March 15. That’s when Florida’s 99 delegates are up for grabs in the state’s winner-take-all primary. But even if he wins his home state, Rubio has no path to the nomination. Most Republicans view Senator Ted Cruz as the strongest Trump challenger, and think he fares better in a head-to-head contest.
People speculate that Rubio could emerge the nominee at a divided convention, but all of those scenarios ignore the fact that if Trump goes into Cleveland with the most delegates, he holds the power hand, not his rivals. No one should underestimate Trump’s ability to make a deal.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls has Rubio down 15 points in Florida. A hoped-for endorsement from former rival Jeb Bush never materialized. In 2012, Senator Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race to avoid a humiliating loss in his home state of Pennsylvania. Rubio is reportedly eyeing a run for governor in 2018.
In politics, you need three ingredients to be successful — money, organization, and message. Lacking all three, Rubio should exit now to avoid an embarrassment in Florida that could damage whatever he hopes to salvage of his political career.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.