Marco Rubio's South Carolina gamble: Can the establishment "front-runner" actually win by losing?

Marco Rubio's plan to win involves losing Iowa and New Hampshire, then taking South Carolina. It seems risky

By Simon Maloy
Published January 20, 2016 10:57AM (EST)
  (Reuters/Brian Frank/Scott Morgan/Scott Morgan)
(Reuters/Brian Frank/Scott Morgan/Scott Morgan)

One of the long-standing questions surrounding Marco Rubio’s status as the non-front-running “front-runner” of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination has been where, exactly, he’s supposed to win. Right now, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are smacking each other around trying to win Iowa, while Trump has held an unassailable lead in New Hampshire. In the history of the modern primary system, no Republican candidate has won the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire, and the GOP establishment is finally coming to terms with the fact that both those contests may be beyond the reach of their preferred candidates. Rubio is one of those candidates, and his strategy in those states has shunned retail politics in favor of ad spending and earned media.

So, again: Where does Rubio win? Well, according to National Review, the Rubio 2016 campaign is pinning its hopes on … South Carolina!

According to multiple Rubio allies recently briefed on campaign strategy, the senator’s team has settled on an unconventional path to winning the GOP primary contest. The strategy, dubbed “3-2-1” by some who have been briefed on it, forecasts a sequence in which Rubio takes third place in Iowa on February 1, finishes second in New Hampshire on February 9, and wins South Carolina on February 20. From there, Rubio would be well-positioned in the long haul to win a plurality of voters, and ultimately a majority of delegates, in a three-way contest against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

The strategy requires several different things to happen at once. The key to it all is New Hampshire, with its jumble of “establishment” candidates vying for second place behind Trump – Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie are all clustered within 5 points of each other. In the Rubio vision, he dominates them all to take second place, which will force them all out of the race and drive their supporters to Rubio, who will then rocket to victory in South Carolina. “In order for that to happen,” National Review notes, “Rubio must finish ahead of Christie, Kasich, and Bush in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and by margins wide enough to discourage the continuation of their campaigns.”

That’s already a difficult task, given how close the current polling is, and also the fact that Kasich is putting together a late and well-timed surge in New Hampshire. And what happens if Cruz, whom Rubio’s people expect to win Iowa, comes into New Hampshire with a head of steam and snatches the second place spot? Trump and Cruz taking the top two spots in the first two states wouldn’t seem to leave much room for Rubio to mount a comeback. And, of course, there’s zero guarantee that any or all of Rubio’s establishment rivals would bow out post-New Hampshire. Jeb Bush has three reasons to stick around through at least South Carolina: money, fear of disappointing his father, and the endorsement of the state’s senior senator. If Jeb wants to drag things out, he’s capable of doing so.

But let’s grant Rubio all the conditions he assumes will come to pass before voting starts in South Carolina: He finishes third in Iowa, takes a commanding second in New Hampshire, and afterward all his rivals pack it in and throw their support behind Rubio. If you look at the current polling averages in South Carolina (where Rubio is running a distant third), the combined support of Rubio, Jeb, Kasich and Christie is good enough for second place – nearly 10 points behind Trump's commanding lead, and not so far ahead of Ted Cruz as to be unassailable. Does Rubio believe that Trump, after winning New Hampshire, will suddenly experience the collapse that so many people have been wrongly predicting? If Jeb doesn’t drop out and decides to stick around through South Carolina, things start looking mighty prickly for Rubio, given that the two are basically running even in the state right now.

He’ll also be running up against some basic rules of politics. It’s very hard to convince people you’re a winner when you don’t actually win. The political landscape is dotted with the wreckages of campaigns whose candidates said they can lose the early states and mount a comeback later on in the primary. No less a person than Ted Cruz pointed this out in an interview with U.S. News last week:

I will point out any candidate making that pitch to you is essentially arguing Rudy Giuliani's strategy was brilliant and would lead to a win. Rudy argued he was going to wait until the fifth state [in 2008]. Florida was fifth. Momentum is critical in politics. For the campaigns that are hoping, 'If only we can get to more liberal states, later in the calendar, they can rescue us from the conservative primary voters,' I believe that is a strategy with very poor chances of success.

Cruz is making a lot more sense here than Rubio’s people. Rubio is betting that after a Cruz victory in Iowa and a Trump victory in New Hampshire, the emerging story line will be “Rubio ascending.” And he’s also betting that he’ll escape the damage his fellow losing candidates will incur by not winning primaries. It’s extraordinarily risky, but at this point what other choice does he have?

Simon Maloy

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