Everything that could have gone wrong for Marco Rubio Tuesday night went very wrong. As my colleague Elias Isquith explains, Rubio’s fifth-place showing in the New Hampshire Republican primary was an unalloyed disaster that completely negated the aura of confidence and “momentum” he somehow conjured from his third-place finish in Iowa. The 3-2-1 strategy his campaign laid out – third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, victor in South Carolina – is officially dead, and now he’s in a massive amount of trouble.
To get an idea of what, precisely, the danger for Rubio is, let’s take a look at how his surrogates behaved after it became clear that their boss was in for a bad night. After losing badly to Donald Trump, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz, they were on Twitter attacking the New Hampshire ground game of… Jeb Bush. Rubio’s communications director pushed Jeb to drop out of the race to clear the way for Marco. None of these attacks made any sense, given that Jeb’s ground game outperformed Rubio’s and helped power him to a narrow fourth-place finish ahead of the Florida senator. But they have to focus on Jeb instead of the people who are actually winning because, improbably, Bush is a massive threat to Rubio now.
Don’t get me wrong – Jeb did not do particularly well in New Hampshire either. Fourth place is no great achievement, especially when you consider how much money Bush spent in order to turn in that mediocre finish. In the context of this bizarre race, however, Jeb did himself a lot of favors by finishing 0.5 percent ahead of Rubio. His campaign has been an expensive disappointment up to this point, but now he can make the pitch to wary donors and Republican establishment types that he stuck with it, fought back, and bested the candidate who was supposed to be the great unifying hope for the party. While Rubio soared and then nosedived in spectacular fashion, Jeb remained steady and he came out (barely) on top of his rival.
And the fact that the race now shifts to South Carolina also works in Jeb’s favor. He has organization on the ground there and the endorsement of the state’s senior senator. He’s polling well ahead of John Kasich, who finished second in New Hampshire but doesn’t have significant resources in any other state. And Jeb’s apparently going to deploy his brother on the campaign trail in an effort to appeal to the nostalgia of Republican voters who gave George W. Bush a decisive primary victory in the state 16 years ago.
Jeb’s people believe that Rubio’s newfound weakness and Kasich’s niche appeal give him an opportunity to reassert himself as the establishment alternative to the Trump/Cruz insurgency, and so they’re planning to utterly destroy both Rubio and Kasich and leave Jeb the last man standing. It’s not the craziest plan – it just might work! If Jeb can tamp down Rubio in South Carolina and beat Kasich, then he’ll have taken away whatever rationale those two have to continue running. The big obstacle facing Jeb in all of this is, of course, Jeb. He is not a good candidate, and Rubio’s people have made it clear that they’re gunning for him too (an aide to Rubio promised a “bloodbath” for Jeb in South Carolina). But the fact that he even has a slim ray of hope at this juncture is a sign of how completely blinkered the GOP nominating race has become.
And that gets to the larger point: even if Jeb does manage to conquer Rubio and Kasich in South Carolina and place a strong third, he still has to deal with Trump and Cruz, both of whom have actually won states and are far better attuned to what the Republican primary electorate wants. If he and Rubio split third in the state, then they’ll just keep right on flailing at each other while Cruz and Trump cement themselves as the favorites for the nomination. So while Jeb might have a path ahead of him, it doesn’t seem like it leads anywhere.