MANCHESTER, N.H. — I’m definitely not the only journalist who has covered both the New Hampshire primary and the Sundance Film Festival and noticed the similarities. I ran into a reporter from Variety at Marco Rubio’s Potemkin Super Bowl party and we agreed about this: Bad weather, bad traffic, a lot of parking in distant locations and trudging through the snow to stand in overheated rooms for manufactured events that aren’t as important as everybody pretends they are. Oh, and then there are the parties held in strange and inappropriate venues that sound like they’re going to be really fun until you get there.
Rubio’s much-anticipated Super Bowl bash in an indoor sports facility next to Interstate 293, less than 24 hours after the Florida senator’s disastrous audio-loop meltdown in Saturday night’s Republican debate, may have established a new gold standard in this contested category. Let me explain “Potemkin Super Bowl party,” because I don’t even know whether that’s a totally obscure reference. In 18th-century Russia under Catherine the Great, authorities built “Potemkin villages,” idealized rural towns full of happy peasants meant for show, while behind those façades the populace lived in misery. [CORRECTION: I originally wrote that Potemkin villages originated in the Soviet Union, which is not true. As several readers wrote to explain, the term was used to describe various Soviet-era phenomena but is much older than that.]
I don’t claim the parallel is precise, but Rubio’s Super Bowl party only briefly pretended to be a Super Bowl party before dissolving into bleakness and confusion. There was a pretty big crowd on hand for the pregame events, when Rubio came out in one of his form-fitting navy blue “marcorubio” campaign-logo zippered fleece tops to deliver his standard stump speech, which combines geniality and meanness in a perfect Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup balance. He didn’t look like a guy who had just absorbed a grievous New Jersey beatdown from Chris Christie, doing his best Tony Soprano impression. Rubio was loose and modestly amusing. He promised to ban disco.
No, I’m not kidding: During a bantering exchange with someone in the crowd about the awfulness of the 1970s (a decade that ended when he was eight years old), Rubio vowed, “When I’m president we’re gonna ban disco music!” Which is strange because — am I wrong about this, older folks? — Marco has a distinct disco vibe. He’s got a certain Miami Beach, late Donna Summer meets early Madonna, boy-toy charisma working, and I do not say that in a spirit of hate. Indeed, the Rubio campaign’s lower-case design aesthetic, which steers away from the block-letter signage favored by most candidates, has a slightly puckish 1970s vibe as well. His imported Florida volunteers wear badges that say “Freezin’ for Our Future”; the press-credential badges identify people like me as “media covering marco.”
Anyway, Rubio told us to enjoy the game, while making clear that he didn’t care who won since the perennially terrible Miami Dolphins were not playing. He worked the throng for a few minutes and got out of Dodge. The crowd began to thin out almost immediately, but a trio of young female campaign workers, smiles frozen in place, cracked open about 75 boxes of Little Caesars pizza and several cases of room-temperature Pepsi. There was other stuff too: Half-size Italian subs made with iceberg lettuce and Chex Mix and an intriguing grayish goop in plastic tubs identified as “Black Bean & Cotija Cheese 6-Layer Dip.” Which I did not try. Can you help here, Floridians? Is this a beloved Cuban-American supermarket staple?
What happened to the Rubio Super Bowl party is an illustration, perhaps, of various maxims about pride and about being careful what you wish for. It’s also an irresistible metaphor for the tulip-boom narrative of Rubio’s New Hampshire campaign over the last week, at least as perceived through the warm-Pepsi goggles of the media. I’m pretty sure that every reporter who came up here to cover the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary highlighted this event on his or her calendar, for the same reasons I did: Rubio’s campaign has tons of money, and after his strong third-place finish in Iowa he suddenly looked like the most plausible non-Trump Republican nominee.
It’s not easy to define the Rubio demographic except in negative terms — hard right but not entirely racist or insane — but by GOP standards his people skew a lot younger and hipper than the Trump-Cruz crowd. I saw beards amid the gathering on Sunday, and not beards in the “Duck Dynasty” vernacular. I saw retro-nerd eyewear on the faces of people under 35. The party was originally supposed to happen at a swanky country club in Manchester, and it sounded like it might be fun, or “fun,” or at least illuminating. Or all three.
So many people RSVP’d amid the post-Iowa Rubio bubble that the campaign had to find a larger venue. So it was that instead of attending an imaginary super-fun party in some upscale country club with an open bar, a dance floor and the greatest hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s, we wound up in a prefabricated steel shed with artificial turf on the floor and fluorescent strip lighting overhead. (The shed next door houses a business called Ray the Mover, whose logo features a palm tree because Ray specializes in getting people’s stuff from New Hampshire to Florida. Talk about kismet!) Throw in the Little Caesars and the warm soda and the whole thing had a begrudging, institutional feeling, like a poorly planned gathering of volleyball coaches or a resettlement center for Syrian refugees in some country that hasn’t decided whether to welcome them or not.
I honestly don’t know whether any real New Hampshire voters attended this event. If so, they fled after observing the Gitmo-like ambience and the lack of alcohol. There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of reporters wandering around scanning the thinning crowd for interview subjects, and forced to settle for Rubio campaign workers or volunteers, all of them from other states. Rubio’s people are spinning the debate catastrophe as best they can: One campaign official tried to engage reporters in an earnest philosophical conversation about whether Obama is indeed an evil Marxist-Leninist genius (as Rubio maintains) or a hapless incompetent, as Trump, Cruz and Jeb Bush pretty much hold.
My designated target turned out to be a Michigan state representative named Aric Nesbitt, who is spending the weekend here pumping up door-to-door Rubio volunteers. Nesbitt still believes that Rubio’s likability and perceived electability versus Hillary Clinton (he’s young, he’s Latino and he comes from a crucial purple state) will win out, but he didn’t try to pretend that the debate was no problem. What he was hearing on the doorsteps of Manchester, he said, was that two days before the primary a lot of people still haven’t decided, and that the anti-Trump vote among Republicans and independents (who may vote in either party’s primary) was likely to divide almost evenly between Rubio, Cruz, Bush and John Kasich.
“In a situation like this, I don’t think the polls mean anything,” Nesbitt said. “They can’t possibly be accurate.” Kasich has been drawing big crowds here and “could pull off a surprise,” he added, and reports of Jeb Bush’s demise may have been premature. Two days ago Rubio was hoping to finish a close second to Trump in New Hampshire, or even to win. Now his campaign is preparing to put a positive spin on third or fourth or fifth. He will still beat Carly Fiorina, they think. By the middle of the second quarter, when the Carolina Panthers scored their only touchdown, the six-layer dip and the Pepsi cans had been cleared away and the doors propped open, admitting a frigid blast off the Merrimack River. A local TV crew came bustling in as I was leaving, ready to do a standup from the rowdy Rubio party, and stood there gazing at the desolation in dismay.