For this week’s 2016 Slack Chat, we check back in on Marco Rubio’s campaign. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): We jumped on the Marco Rubio bandwagon a while ago, and there were a few weeks when the conventional wisdom seemed to hold that Rubio was the front-runner. But he never got much of a bump in the polls. He got some endorsements but never more than a trickle. And now the narrative has flipped — at least a little — and people are wondering why Rubio isn’t doing better. So, our question for today is: Marco Rubio — overrated, underrated, properly rated?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): He’s either underrated now or was overrated before, because the conventional wisdom has changed a lot more than the underlying facts of the case.
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): If we are going with my grandmother’s metric of whoever is the best-looking being the best qualified for president, then Rubio, who currently has the best chance of winning according to betting markets, is properly rated. But otherwise, I think he’s overrated. He has endorsements, but I think that his “national” primary campaign tactic might not be panning out as expected.
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Well, let’s look at the facts: Rubio still has fantastic favorable ratings. The best in the field. The problem is that he hasn’t translated those favorable ratings into horse-race numbers. But as I’ve written, the horse-race numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t necessarily telling at this point. Here’s a chart from the piece:
We played “buy/sell/hold” a few weeks ago, and I had Rubio as the favorite with somewhere around a 35 percent chance of winning the nomination. I see no reason to change my mind on this. Although, I will say that Ted Cruz may be higher than he once was, but Rubio is no lower.
micah: Clare’s point about Rubio’s lack of a ground game is interesting. That storyline seemed to drive a lot of the negative coverage Rubio received recently.
natesilver: For sure. I’ve been a Rubio-bull too, and the reports about his ground game concern me.
harry: (Thank goodness we are all in the same room typing to each other instead of speaking. We are healthy people.)
clare.malone: I think writing is good for the soul, Harry.
natesilver: At the same time, a lot of this is glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty stuff. For instance, it seems like he has a pretty good ground game in Nevada. There’s not a lot of focus on that now because the narrative on Rubio has turned negative.
micah: What is Rubio’s strategy?
natesilver: His strategy is being the top establishment-approved choice remaining after the first few states vote. Or maybe that’s a goal, more than a strategy.
clare.malone: His theory is that there’s not a lot of point to wasting resources on campaign offices, etc. — the traditional apparatus, basically. Rubio’s team thinks they should be investing their money in TV ads/radio, etc. They’re also all about that national media vs. kowtowing to the locals — the idea being that more people are likely to see the senator on “Fox and Friends” than in a Des Moines diner.
The problem with that being, if I am to voice the detractors’ views, that a lot of people in the early states are, say, at work and not watching TV when he’s doing Fox interviews and so the exposure might not be as great as he thinks. And if he’s courting the national media, and Iowa and New Hampshire are primaries that are greatly affected by media spin, it might adversely affect his campaign.
natesilver: My question is how much of this is expectations management by the Rubio campaign.
harry: I feel like a lot of this anti-Rubio stuff is because he hasn’t broken out in the polls, but he’s still at 10 percent or greater everywhere. The leader in New Hampshire is Donald Trump, who hasn’t moved at all over the last four months. Given the increasingly low expectations at this point, it’s not difficult to see Rubio winning New Hampshire by a percentage point or two and taking off.
clare.malone: So, are we all being a little bit ninny-ish, thinking that New Hampshire and Iowa really matter that much?
We’re piloting our election podcast. The proper show will launch in January, before the Iowa caucus, but you can find our pilots in the feed for What’s The Point.
natesilver: Yeah, New Hampshire is one pivot point here. You have several establishment candidates at about 10 percent of the vote. Reminds me of Iowa four years ago when Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry all stuck at like 10 percent in Iowa and then Santorum broke out. Similarly, someone from the Rubio/Chris Christie/Jeb Bush/John Kasich group is likely to break out in New Hampshire eventually.
micah: Nate, don’t be such a ninnyhammer.
harry: Right. This is a first-past-the-post primary. Eventually, there tends to be a coalescing of the vote around a particular candidate.
clare.malone: While I might be spouting the conventional wisdom in this chat, I am intro-ing antique words that Micah likes.
natesilver: The fundamental reason we’ve been bullish on Rubio, though, has been by a sort of process of elimination. And that really hasn’t changed.
clare.malone: So, is Christie Rubio’s biggest competition in New Hampshire?
micah: Cue Harry’s pro-Christie stump speech …
harry: It could be Cruz.
clare.malone: You missed your cue. Play for the crowd, Harry!
harry: If Cruz won in Iowa, he could win in New Hampshire. Of course, I haven’t really seen a lot of proof that Cruz has expanded beyond his very conservative/evangelical Christian base.
natesilver: Trump would be a disastrous nominee for the Republican Party on every level. Cruz wouldn’t be as bad, but (i) he’d still probably cost Republicans a few percentage points in November by being “too” conservative, and (ii) he isn’t well-liked by his colleagues. The point is that the stakes are really high and the establishment is not just going to give up the fight. It might lose the fight, but it won’t cease fighting.
harry: I play for no crowd.
micah: Nate, that to me is the key question for how you rate Rubio’s chances …
If you put Cruz firmly in the anti-establishment category and you think the party will do all it can to prevent a Cruz nomination, then Rubio looks to be in a really solid position.
But if you think Trump might scare the establishment into making peace with Cruz, then Rubio’s position doesn’t seem that great to me.
natesilver: Yeah. I realize some of the Rubio case seems a little underwear-gnomish. He seems like a rational nominee for the Republican Party — but we’re not sure how he’ll get there exactly? At the same time, it might be a little early to focus on specific scenarios. At this point 12 years ago, nobody would have expected John Kerry to break out in New Hampshire, for example.
harry: Let me play a little pro-Rubio here, if I can. The belief that Trump is a favorite or a real threat to the nomination is largely built on what have been fairly impressive national numbers coming out. Yet when you look at the data from Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump’s numbers are fine, but not all that amazing. So why should the party actors settle on Cruz?
micah: That’s a fair point.
natesilver: At this point, I think there’s more chance of Cruz winning in a runaway-freight-train scenario than Trump. The recent Emerson College poll had Cruz at 41 percent nationally in a race without Trump and Ben Carson — and while we don’t expect those candidates to disappear instantly, they’re the two whose numbers will probably suffer the most if they don’t win Iowa.
clare.malone: Well, it depends on how much there is a new normal in this election, right? How much has the Trump effect trickled down to make even really conservative guys like Cruz seem like relatively mainstream dudes? I think there’s perhaps a real feeling of radicalism in the Republican base that’s been percolating and might play hugely in this election.
micah: Yeah, and how powerful a force that is remains a big open question. Here’s another: Does Rubio NEED to win in New Hampshire?
harry: NO. But he needs to be very competitive there.
natesilver: He needs to be the top establishment candidate standing. He might also need Cruz to not win New Hampshire. Cruz sweeping Iowa and New Hampshire — and presumably then South Carolina — would make him a real front-runner, obviously. But even so, the establishment isn’t likely to concede the race so easily. And the media will want a long, competitive contest too.
clare.malone: So Rubio coming in third would never be OK for him? (Trump, Cruz finishing ahead in this scenario.) He needs to beat one of those guys?
natesilver: Let me answer that obliquely with one analogy I’ve been thinking about lately, which is sort of a soft version of the “Party Decides” theory. Imagine that the party establishment is the referee in a boxing match. It has one boxer it would prefer to see win. But it can’t rig the match once it’s underway. However, it can choose when to call the fight. So if its preferred boxer — let’s call him Red — is winning early, it can call the fight after a couple of rounds. But if he’s losing, they can let the fight keep going and hope he prevails on the basis of his stamina. And if all else fails, they can hope he’ll deliver a desperate knockout blow at the end.
natesilver: This boxer is not guaranteed to win by any means. He’s screwed if his opponent leads wire to wire, but he’s getting a lot of second and third chances when his opponent might not. And that makes his overall odds pretty good. He just has to lead at any point and the refs can call the match.
I’m getting sort of abstract here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what sort of power the party establishment does and does not have. And a lot of it is having some persuasive power to set the rules of engagement and strategically encourage winnowing of the field. Why has no Republican won the nomination before without winning Iowa or New Hampshire? Because in every past nomination race, a candidate who was broadly acceptable to Republican Party elites won at least one of those states. We don’t have any examples really on what happens when an insurgent wins both states.
micah: But now we’re talking about two different questions: Can the establishment prevent an insurgent nominee? And, if so, will the establishment-approved substitute be Rubio?
It’s still not clear to me that — even if the establishment can prevent a Trump or Cruz nomination — Rubio will be the beneficiary, even if that’s the modal scenario.
natesilver: I think (?) we can all agree that Rubio is in trouble if he falls behind Christie or Bush in the establishment pecking order.
micah: We’re only a few weeks away from the Jeb Bush comeback narrative.
clare.malone: Jeb! does have five field offices in New Hampshire.
natesilver: I think Bush is still probably toast. But Christie’s sort of semi-surge in New Hampshire is bad news for Rubio. With all that said, I go back to the managing expectations thing. Rubio hasn’t bowled anyone over with his endorsements, but he’s still received far more than anyone else since Labor Day. He has a couple of big super PAC donors lined up. His favorable ratings remain at or near the top of the field.
micah: I think you’re too confident in toasting Bush.
natesilver: But, Micah, the problem for Bush is that Rubio is close to being a “dominant strategy” over him. Rubio’s more conservative, polls better than Bush head-to-head against Hillary Clinton, and he’s acceptable to a wider array of Republican actors.
harry: Bush had a beautiful -15 percentage point net favorability rating among Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll out today.
natesilver: I could see there being a Bush comeback narrative — and it failing and helping to nominate Trump or (more likely) Cruz instead.
micah: Clare, how would you rank the establishment candidates right now?
clare.malone: Probably Rubio, Christie, Jeb, Kasich.
micah: That’s how I have them too … Nate and Harry?
natesilver: I agree with Clare’s order.
harry: I concur. Of course, I’d probably write it “Rubio, CHRISTIE, Jeb, Kasich.”
micah: OK, how would you rank them in New Hampshire?
clare.malone: Christie and Rubio could flip in my mind in New Hampshire over the next month.
harry: Well, I don’t want to spoil something I’m writing for next week, but I have reason to think Christie could do better in New Hampshire than we think at this point.
natesilver: Here’s the thing, though, and it gets back to glass-half-full, glass-half-empty: Christie has some potential for a surge, I agree, and he’s a plausible winner in New Hampshire, but he also has a lot of baggage. Ideological baggage. Bridge-gate baggage. Loyalty-to-the-party baggage. And he doesn’t have all that much money and seems to have even less of a ground game than Rubio.
So, again, the risk the establishment runs is that it turns to Christie but he proves to be too weak to beat Cruz/Trump when Rubio just maybe could win a war of attrition against him.
harry: Wait, what’s the proof he has less of a ground game in New Hampshire?
natesilver: He has virtually zero ground game beyond New Hampshire. And with Cruz having a LOT of money and a seemingly pretty good ground game, it might be too little too late for Christie to build a competitive one.
harry: OK, I agree with that Nate, but we’re talking New Hampshire here. And the ideological baggage isn’t baggage in a state where moderates grow on trees like wet snow in the early spring.
micah: But here’s my point: Rubio looks great on paper — he has a “dominant strategy” — but there are a lot of scenarios in which he gets beat in Iowa, beat in New Hampshire and beat in South Carolina. At some point, looking good on paper, or being the shiniest establishment-approved loser, isn’t worth much.
natesilver: OK, but let’s work backward instead of forward here. Indulge me for a second.
clare.malone: Boxing metaphor??
natesilver: Suppose Rubio concludes that the establishment really has no other choice than to back him. Or at least no other good choice. Sure, Rubio has flaws, but they’re probably more manageable than Christie’s, Bush’s or Kasich’s. Furthermore, Rubio knows that the calendar becomes pretty good for him in March once you get into some larger, more diverse states.
At that point, it becomes a game of surviving until March. And how do you do that when you’re not inherently a great fit for any of Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina? You do it by keeping expectations modest so a few second- and third-place finishes look pretty good.
And maybe by winning Nevada.
micah: But expectations aren’t modest, are they?
natesilver: They’ve become a lot more modest after all the negative stories we’ve seen on Rubio recently!
clare.malone: Managing expectations. The age old tale. So we have come to the ultimate conclusion that he is … swimming along just as he has planned it all along?
micah: How low can his expectations be? Rubio is No.1 in betting markets.
harry: I don’t know. I don’t know. What is Rubio’s base? What is it? I’ve seen a lot of stories about how Bill Clinton didn’t win Iowa or New Hampshire and then won the nomination anyway. But remember, Clinton had the South. Not only that, but he had African-American voters. Who does Rubio have? It’s not like he has the South. (Granted, the South is more establishment-friendly than people give it credit for.)
natesilver: Well, Rubio might benefit from the delegate math. As we’ve written, there are disproportionately many delegates in blue and purple states, relative to the number of Republicans who will turn out.
micah: See, I think Harry’s question gets at the potential problem for Rubio: Good on paper, less impressive when you look at the chess board.
natesilver: Unless he’s playing 13-dimensional chess. [inhales bong hit]
harry: Clearly, you have.
clare.malone: Can I cut through all this, not least because I really have to use the ladies room and it’s much farther away from the debate stage? What we’re all saying here is, “Dunno, could be Rubio! Gotta wait and see how the next month plays out, where the party establishment decides to rest their laurels!”
natesilver: I’ll just say this. Trump is at 23 percent to win the nomination at Predictwise right now, which is a reasonably good approximation of the conventional wisdom. If you think that’s too high, you have some room to redistribute that 23 percent to the rest of the candidates. So you can think Rubio’s chances are underrated but that Cruz’s are underrated too, which is probably about where I’m at these days.