The pro-Rubio mirage: Middling candidate only staying afloat because GOP primary is an utter circus

No matter what the pundits say, the vast majority of Republican voters don't want Rubio as their nominee

By Sean Illing
Published January 4, 2016 9:41PM (EST)
Marco Rubio (AP)
Marco Rubio (AP)

The punditocracy – including yours truly – has declared Marco Rubio the most likely establishment candidate on the Republican side. With Jeb's campaign in the tank and candidates like Christie and Kasich foundering near the bottom of the polls, Rubio seems best positioned to challenge Trump and Cruz in 2016.

It may be time to revisit that assumption, however.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Frank Bruni asks whether the Rubio-as-frontrunner narrative still makes sense:

“Math was never my strongest subject, so maybe I'm just not crunching the numbers right. But the more I stare at them, the less sense Marco Rubio makes...According to odds makers and predication markets, he's the best bet. According to many commentators, too. But Iowa's less than a month away, and in two recent polls of Republican voters there, he's a distant third, far behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. So he's killing it in New Hampshire, right? Wrong. A survey from two weeks ago had him second to Trump there, but another, just days earlier, put him in third place – after Trump and Cruz, again. Chris Christie's inching up on him...And as of Thursday, the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls in South Carolina showed Rubio to be more than six points behind Cruz and 21 behind Trump among that state's Republicans. There's no inkling of a surge, and it's not as if pro-Rubio forces have been holding off on advertising that will turn the tide. Plenty of ads have already run.”

Bruni makes some valid points here. Much of the confidence in Rubio has little do with him and more to do with the absence of credible establishment challengers. It's true that Rubio has surged to third in the national polls, but, again, that's largely a product of Bush and others falling off the map. And the fact remains: he's losing to Trump and Cruz badly in almost every relevant survey. Barring some dramatic shift in the race, Rubio has no clear path to the nomination.

As a candidate, Rubio has been OK, but far from great. He sounds the part, but if you look closely, it's mostly gas. Rubio covers old ideas with a fresh face, and that often obscures how retrograde and empty his ideas are. Even more problematic, Rubio appears to be a lazy campaigner, missing several Senate votes while refusing to really hit the ground in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Rubio has coasted on the perception that he's a trailblazer who can appeal to young people and Latinos, two key demographics for the Republican Party. But, apart from his age and background, there's no evidence that he helps with either of these groups. As Bruni notes, based on a Washington Post/ABC News poll from late November, “his [Rubio's] support was more than twice as strong among Republican voters 65 and older as among those under 50.”

Bruni perceptively identifies what's likely behind the widespread belief in Rubio's candidacy:

“Reasonable people can't stomach the thought of Trump or Cruz as the nominee. We can't accept what that would say about America, or what that could mean for it. Rubio is the flawed, rickety lifeboat we cling to, the amulet we clutch. He'll prevail because he must. The alternative is simply too perverse (Trump) or too cruel (Cruz).”

It's hard to disagree with Bruni's assessment. Most of us want to believe America is a serious country. A serious country wouldn't nominate Donald Trump for president. A serious country would not allow its process to be hijacked by a huckster with no interest in or experience with governance. But this isn't a serious country, and we're clearly capable of these things. And that's terrifying.

Rubio may still be the most likely establishment candidate moving forward (and that's a big if), but by no means is he a frontrunner. Whatever it says about America, Trump is the undisputed leader in the Republican race right now, and only Cruz appears capable of challenging him. Rubio is just the last semi-serious candidate standing, and no matter what the pundits say, it's clear that the vast majority of Republican voters don't want him.

Eventually, the GOP will have to recognize that, and accept what it says about their party and our country.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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2016 Elections Chris Christie Donald Trump Jeb Bush Marco Rubio Republican Party Ted Cruz