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Marco Rubio Is A Strong Candidate — Despite His Polling Surge

Marco Rubio is surging!

For the first time since the 2014 midterm elections, Rubio is leading the 2016 GOP field, according to polls by Fox News and Quinnipiac University. Rubio is a serious contender for the Republican nomination, but he is only the latest candidate to receive a polling boost from a burst of favorable press. And he likely won’t be the last.

In a race so tight, the most important thing to pay attention to continues to be the underlying fundamentals of the race: Is the candidate liked? Is she building a campaign infrastructure? Does she hold positions amenable to voters? And so on. Those look good for Rubio.

Take a look at this local regression chart of the top five candidates in the national Republican primary polls since the midterms.


Jeb Bush climbed during December, which is when he announced that he was actively exploring a run for president. Scott Walker saw a more rapid rise during January, when he gave a very well-received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit. Ted Cruz, who isn’t likely to actually contend for the nomination, rocketed up when he announced for president in March. Even Rand Paul, who was fairly well-known before his campaign launch in April, rose in the past month.

The fact that all these candidates have surged and then dropped (or begun to drop) again and that no one is consistently polling above 15 percent shows how unsettled the GOP field is — not surprising such a long way from the actual voting.

What makes Rubio strong isn’t his polling surge, but that he is well-liked across the party apparatus. He pulls in conservatives with his voting record and moderates with his impressive 2010 Senate victory in Florida, a crucial battleground state.

This is all evident in non-horse-race polling. Rubio’s net favorability rating among Republicans is near the top of the field. The gap between Republicans who could see themselves voting for Rubio and those who couldn’t is among the field’s best, according to an average of CBS News surveys conducted this year:

Jeb Bush 50% 27% +24
Scott Walker 33 9 +24
Marco Rubio 38 17 +22
Mike Huckabee 44 25 +20
Ben Carson 30 13 +18
Ted Cruz 30 22 +9
Rand Paul 35 27 +8
Rick Perry 32 26 +6
Bobby Jindal 20 16 +4
Rick Santorum 28 26 +3
Chris Christie 28 43 -15
Lindsey Graham 10 33 -23

When voters actually start tuning into the race, Rubio will be in a good position to win over Republicans who are currently undecided or tentatively supporting another candidate. (That’s not to say he’ll actually win them over; he’ll just be in a good position to.)

Rubio’s current polling uptick may or may not last. But few other candidates look as strong in the underlying data that will ultimately dictate the direction that the 2016 Republican primary takes.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.