Senator Marco Rubio didn’t just lose his backyard of Florida to Donald Trump – he was smashed. The billionaire hot favourite to be the GOP nominee won 45.8% of the vote* – once again busting the myth that there was a low ceiling over his support and he couldn’t win more than 30-something percent of the Republican primary vote. This scale of Trump’s win, particularly among older voters, echoes a new national YouGov/ Economist poll which put him on 53% in a four-way race with Ted Cruz (22%), Jon Kasich (11%), and Marco Rubio (10%). Yep; fifty-three per cent!
It wasn’t, of course, a perfect night for Mr Trump. Governor John Kasich did what Ted Cruz did two weeks ago and won his home state. Kasich won all 66 of Ohio’s delegates and has raised the hope of the “NeverTrump” supporters that the Republican nomination will be contested at July’s Cleveland Convention. Equally, however, Kasich staying in the race denies Senator Cruz the one-on-one fight with Trump that he craves. But back to that idea of a contested Convention: a First Verdict panel has already demonstrated that there is very limited appetite amongst Republican voters for using that Convention to deny Mr Trump the nomination if he wins more delegates than any other candidate. This is partly because there is no enthusiasm for an alternative to Mr Trump from within or outside this year’s field of runners. Only 6% of Republican voters support a brokered ticket headed by Mitt Romney and, even fewer – 3% – would welcome a ticket led by the Speaker, Paul Ryan.
So how did we get here? We’re all surprised – including Mr Trump himself. At his victory press conference last night he spoke for 99% of pundits in saying “I would never have thought this could have happened.” So, why specifically did the more mainstream Republicans like Mr Rubio and Governor Jeb Bush do particularly badly? Yesterday – anticipating Mr Trump’s Florida victory – I put ten of the most plausible explanations to the YouGov panel and asked them to judge. The specific question was:
“If the opinion polls are correct, Senator Marco Rubio, the last hope of more establishment Republican leaders, will be defeated by Donald Trump in today’s Florida primary. Why do you think candidates like Senator Rubio and Governor Jeb Bush have struggled this year? Please check the THREE factors that you think are most important.”
Pasted below are the scores that each of those explanations received from Republican members of the panel. The explanation most persuasive to the panel is at top and the least at the bottom. Below each explanation I’ve added my own brief commentaries.
Explanation #1: The likes of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are part of a GOP leadership class that has ignored and betrayed normal Republicans for too long (51% of Republican members of the panel agreed that this was an important explanation)
Senator Rubio conceded this yesterday evening during the speech in which he suspended his campaign. Republican voters, he said, had elected a Republican Congress in 2010 and then a Republican Senate in 2014 but hadn’t seen enough difference from having done so. But as well as ignoring President Obama’s veto that explanation doesn’t do justice to the longstanding nature of the conservative base’s disappointment. One woman I met at a Trump rally was clear why she had abandoned the “same old, same old” in favour of the celebrity TV hotelier. I summarised her perspective in The Spectator: “She had had enough of Republican politicians explaining to her that putting a time-limit on abortion was ‘too unpopular’. Why restricting immigration was ‘too hard’. Why cutting the benefits and entitlements of hard-working families was ‘unfortunate but necessary’. Yet those same politicians always found time, resolve and political capital to cut taxes for the rich and protect corporate perks.” She wasn’t sure if Mr Trump would be different – and wasn’t actually very optimistic – but she was absolutely sure that another Republican from the familiar mould would definitely let her and other traditional Republicans down.
Explanation #2: People want someone who hasn’t been a politician and will shake up Washington (43%)
Trump, like Dr Ben Carson in the earlier stages of the nomination process, benefited from coming from outside a hated system. Mr Trump tells every rally that he knows how to create jobs and ensure rivals don’t screw him. And he promises that he will renegotiate trade agreements so that China and big business are no longer screwing the American people. His robust, locker room language against competitors in the GOP field reinforces the sense that he’ll take no prisoners in pursuing his big promises of building a wall across the Mexican border and protecting America from Muslim extremists. Enough Republican voters, tired of gridlock, think this style might help to overturn the status quo. When Apple continue to manufacture iPhones etc in China – contrary to his undertaking – the disillusionment will set in. Apple not reshoring will just be one of the failed big promises of a Trump Presidency (should that extraordinary possibility occur) and the anti-politics mode felt now might become open to as more rational solution.
Explanation #3: They are out of touch with what voters want on immigration (35%)
More than Marco Rubio’s robotic, repetitive performance at the New Hampshire debate… more than the tens of millions that the circular firing squad of other mainstream Republicans launched at him… more than the down-and-dirty attacks on Trump that Iain Martin correctly spotlighted… more than an inadequate ground organisation even in his home state… Marco Rubio probably never recovered from his “Group of Eight” attempt to forge a compromise solution for illegal immigration with some moderate Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrats like Senator Chuck Schemer, who is especially hated by many conservative Republicans. This is a moment in American politics when a video that spotlights Ted Cruz’s unwillingness to make a deal with opponents is made and broadcast by Mr Cruz rather than an opponent of Cruz. Watch it! This mood will hopefully pass but for the moment the lesson many ambitious future Republicans will draw from Senator Rubio’s collapse is that reaching across the aisle can easily be a road to ruin for presidential ambitions.
Explanation #4: They have not been able to compete with Donald Trump’s publicity machine and the way he has dominated TV coverage (30%)
This rough screen capture from last night – with the caption “Standing By For Trump To Speak” – could have come from CNN on almost any day from the last six months. The TV networks have given Mr Trump $2 billion of free advertising according to some estimates. That’s about six times more than received by Ted Cruz – the Republican placed second in this earned media league table. Other estimates put the media advantaged enjoyed by Mr Trump at more like 10-to-1. Mr Rubio’s ill-judged remarks about the size of Mr Trump’s hands and the joke that he wet himself was part of an attempt to get his rallies covered.
Explanation #5: People want politicians who are independent of powerful donors (25%)
Far from being a drawback, Mr Trump’s great personal wealth has led many voters to believe that he won’t be bought by the powerful special interest groups that fund the election machines of most other candidates. At his campaign events, Mr Trump regularly attacked Marco Rubio for skipping Senate votes in order to attend meetings with donors. The attack always received a loud and seemingly knowing cheer. There is a particular sense that proper border control has been vetoed by powerful corporate donors who benefit from imported and cheaper labour.
Explanation #6: The candidates are not the problem – the attitudes of the voters who take part in the Republican primary process are the problem (23%)
It is easy to come over all Bertolt Brecht and suggest we dismiss the people and appoint a new electorate. Given how few voters take part in GOP primaries compared to the number of Americans who will vote in November’s general election the idea that the electorate is skewed is not without merit. It would be wrong, however, to simply conclude that Trump owes his frontrunner status to the support of racists, reactionaries and other European stereotypes of American voters. Many, and I’d say most, Trump supporters (I must have spoken to 200 of them during my US travels) are responsible citizens who are worried about their stagnating incomes, the job prospects of their children and the sense that America is declining. In a multi-country survey I arranged for the Legatum Institute last autumn only 14% of Americans thought the next generation would be richer, safer and healthier than the last. 51% disagreed. This same economic pessimism was deeper than the UK or Germany and has also helped power the unlikely strength of Bernie Sanders’ anti-Wall Street campaign.
Explanation #7: Candidates like Rubio and Bush would continue economic policies that benefit richer Americans (13%) DEMS SAY 37%
All of the tax plans of the GOP candidates (especially, it must be noted, Mr Trump) largely benefit the wealthy and it remains a mystery to me as to why Marco Rubio did not make more of the policy ideas that he had formulated under the “reformocon” umbrella that were designed to help the low-waged. At some point a GOP candidate will embrace the agenda of Reihan Salam as set out on Slate. Post-Trump any candidate who puts Mr Salam in charge of their policy agenda will be well on their way to be deserving of the GOP nomination.
Explanation #8: They are too hardline on abortion, homosexuality and other social issues (13%)
There would have been a time when a Republican candidate would have been sunk if they had said they would fund Planned Parenthood. But Trump has got away with promising to do exactly that and got away with his own record of pretty liberal social attitudes (many of which he has only recently renounced). He’s got away with it because social issues are playing second fiddle to economic issues in this political cycle and also because it’s as if many evangelicals see Mr Trump as their equivalent of Putin. They guess he’s not a true god-fearing man but they long for a strongman in the White House to fight Islamic extremism abroad and secular judicial activism at home. Like the woman at the Trump rally that I described at the top of this post, they know they can’t be sure that Mr Trump will be a reliable ally of Christianity but they worry that strong Christians like George W Bush are too fair-minded to defeat unfair-minded opponents of Christianity.
Explanation #9: They would continue foreign policies similar to those of the George W Bush years (7%)
One of the many times that pundits inaccurately announced the arrival of “Peak Trump” was after the South Carolina debate in which the GOP frontrunner accused George W Bush of lying about 9/11 and made other anti-Iraq war statements that could have come from the mouth of the left-wing film-maker, Michael Moore. Trump, of course, went on to win South Carolina. This 7% finding for this ninth explanation suggests that the muscular foreign policy interventionism of Rubio-Bush-Graham was not key to their failed campaigns but it is also clear that Trump’s rejection of Bush-era neoconservatism has done him very little harm and probably some good.
Explanation #10: The losing Republican candidates are not so bad – it’s just that Donald Trump is better (5%)
No further comment!
A few weeks ago I was at a rally in Greenville, South Carolina. I saw what I thought was the future of the Republican Party. Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, stood alongside the African American Senator Tim Scott and the Indian American Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who had removed the Confederate flag from capitol buildings. Rubio talked about a Republican agenda for single mums, men who had to work two jobs to feed their families and students struggling with college debts. It looked like a team and message that could defeat the likely Democratic nominee – the establishment, uninspiring, unpopular Hillary Clinton who has been at the heart of the immigration, free trade and Wall street policies that many floating voters blame for America’s economic woes. It was a ticket that could have given the Republicans dominance in Washington – including the ability to move the ageing US Supreme Court in a conservative direction. All polling evidence suggests Rubio would have been much more electable than Trump or Cruz. All that possibility feels dead and buried today. A terrible, terrible tragedy for conservatism in America – and across the globe.
* At the time of posting with 99% of votes counted.For more about Portrait of America and the methodology behind First Verdict, click here.
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