Darryl Paulson: The rise and fall of Marco Rubio

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Marco Rubio has had a meteoric political career. From winning a seat on the West Miami City Council in the 1990s, to winning a special election by 64 votes to earn a seat in the Florida House, to his stunning victory over Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, Rubio’s political career has been impressive.

When Rubio challenged the popular Crist for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, most pundits said he didn’t have a chance. Crist had the support of the Republican establishment in Florida and also the support of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Rubio started the race trailing Crist by anywhere between 30 to 45 percent.

Rubio, playing the role of the biblical David to perfection, defeated the Goliath Crist. In what I consider the most astounding election in modern Florida history, Rubio chased Crist from the Republican Party and forced him to run as an independent candidate. On Election Day, Rubio won 49 percent of the vote to 30 percent for Crist and only 20 percent for Democrat Kendrick Meek. The giant had been slain, and Rubio would soon be branded by Time magazine as “the Republican savior.”

After losing the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party created a “Growth and Opportunity Program” to analyze the results and develop a path forward. Essentially, the committee recommended that the party had to broaden its appeal to women and minorities, especially Hispanics, if they hoped to win the White House. They could no longer win with just white, male voters.

Many Republicans viewed Rubio as the future face of the party. Young, articulate, conservative and Hispanic, he was the ideal candidate.

In April 2015, Rubio announced his campaign for the presidency. He was one of 17 Republican candidates and was consider one of the front-runners.

Rubio turned out to be one of the great political underachievers in modern politics. He won only three of the 32 primaries and caucuses, winning Minnesota, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Tea Party voters who carried him into the U.S. Senate in 2010 deserted him in the presidential campaign.

“America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami, and we should have seen this coming,” Rubio said in his concession speech.

Donald Trump destroyed Rubio in his home state where Rubio had never lost an election.

Trump got 45.7 percent of the vote; Rubio got only 27 percent. Trump won 66 of Florida’s 67 counties. The only county Rubio won was his home county of Miami-Dade. All of Florida’s 99 delegates were awarded to Trump.

Not only did Rubio get trounced, but Trump also laid to rest the myth that he could not win in a closed primary state. It was the Republican voters of Florida who said yes to Trump and no to Rubio.

What went wrong for Rubio?

Among the many explanations is Rubio’s role as a member of “the gang of 8” who pushed for immigration reform and a pathway for citizenship for illegal aliens. There is some truth to this, but among Florida’s primary voters, only 12 percent mentioned immigration as a major factor in their vote.

Others cited Rubio’s devastating performance in the New Hampshire debate where Chris Christie accused Rubio of being a robotic, scripted candidate who merely repeated his 25-second talking points. Rubio repeated the same talking point three times during the debate. He finished in fifth place in New Hampshire.

Rubio’s campaign was widely criticized for its reliance on a media-focused approach. As his campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, told the New York Times: “More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa.” However, numerous studies demonstrate that a solid ground game can produce a voter boost of up to 10 percent on Election Day and a good telephone effort can add another 4 percent.

Finally, many believe Rubio delivered the wrong message at the wrong time. He alluded to this in his concession speech when he said, “this may not have been the year for a hopeful and optimistic message.” Republican voters wanted someone to channel their anger into reforming politics and solving problems.

March 15 was the Ides of March. To paraphrase Marc Antony, “I come to bury Marco, not to praise him.”

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Darryl Paulson, Emeritus Professor of Government, USF St. Petersburg.

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