Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run ended where it started: in his home state of Florida. The same people who sent him to Washington DC as their senator in 2010 and showed up at the Freedom Tower to support his declaration last April said “no” to a President Rubio in yesterday’s primary. Floridians chose Trump. Ouch.
Much will be written about the rise and fall of the former Tea Party darling’s presidential run. Pundits will focus on the typical reasons for an election cycle meltdown — a poorly-run campaign, his seeming flip-flop on immigration, a lack of foreign policy experience, his age, and, of course, the dreaded “establishment” label. While these details matter (and certainly contributed), Rubio’s failure is largely the result of something else — something he was so good at no one considered it would ever lead to his downfall.
Ironically, the once-labeled next “Great Communicator” lost his way with voters because they (and admittedly his family) were “embarrassed” by his rhetoric.
Rubio the Robot
In an election cycle that praises authenticity above all else, the collapse of the Rubio brand started just six short weeks ago on February 6.
To set the stage: Rubio was standing tall after a surprisingly high third-place finish in Iowa and a subsequent “victory” speech praised by both pundits and voters alike. Rubio stayed on message by echoing the “New American Century” language introduced in his announcement speech, and made sure to embrace and reinforce the importance of American history. He sounded presidential and, more importantly, offered voters an alternative to Trump.
But his high was short-lived. Enter Gov. Chris Christie at the GOP debate in New Hampshire. Christie knew he needed to deal an irreparable blow to Rubio in order to advance his own campaign, so he rebroadcast one of his favorite charges against the Senator – that Rubio was a talking-point, establishment drone.
The typically winsome Rubio seemed to short-circuit. When Christie called out one of his answers as “the memorized 25-second speech,” Rubio countered by doing EXACTLY what Christie said he would do. THREE times Rubio responded word-for-word with, “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Who was this robot? Certainly not the candidate many held up as the future of the GOP. Rubio froze for the first time on a national stage and appeared weak. If he didn’t know in the moment how bad the gaffe was, the Rubio Robots that popped up at campaign events and on social media for days afterward sure drove home the point.
Even with the backlash, Rubio recovered in the following debate on February 13 in Greenville, South Carolina. He was calm, and measured, and didn’t fall prey to the Rubio Robot label. He was back…
…just in time to address the problem that refused to go away: Trump’s lead in the polls. With Rubio’s poor showing in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it was time to face Trump or go home. So, on February 25 in Houston, Texas, Rubio employed a new strategy: attack Trump. Trump was no longer off-limits, and Rubio took full advantage. In reference to Trump’s health-care plan, Rubio pushed: “What’s your plan?”….so the only thing is to get rid of the lines around the states. What else is part of your healthcare plan?” The exchange left Trump visibly uncomfortable.
What Jeb Bush had (unsuccessfully) tried to do in previous debates, Rubio nailed. He was able to confidently call out Trump’s inconsistencies and fend off the personal attacks without responding in kind. The media praised him, calling him “feisty” and signaling that he may be the guy to put Trump in his place.
The boost Rubio needed, he got. But what he did with that boost was unexpected. Instead of using his newfound energy for good, Rubio upped his game and waged an all out war against the frontrunner.
On February 28 in Salem, Virginia, just three days after his great success in Houston, Rubio stooped to Trump-style tactics and got personal. As a warm-up, he mocked Trump’s typos on Twitter. But then he quickly transitioned to the main event and talked about Trump’s “wet” pants, referenced his tan by claiming Trump “isn’t gonna make America great, he’s gonna make it orange,” and finally descended to the lowest of the low by discussing the size of Trump’s hands: “And you know what they say about guys with small hands.”
It was shocking. In less than a minute his rhetoric not only ruined the progress he made after the Christie talking point debacle, but also changed the trajectory of his campaign. Instead of riding the high of the prior debate to guarantee positive press, the news cycle turned to commentary not suitable for children. No wonder his family was “embarrassed” by his comments.
Rubio tried to recover two weeks later in Detroit, but was visibly ill and brought little energy to the stage. Following that throwaway debate and the resulting primary losses, he saw the writing on the wall and admitted that the personal attacks were a mistake: “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.”
He had one final chance to rebound at last Thursday’s debate. He held his own, but the Rubio that effectively took on Trump in Houston didn’t make an appearance in Miami. Rubio seemed hesitant to launch any attack and ultimately matched the narrative that Trump was trumpeting — “Little Marco.”
Time had run out for Rubio. He committed the one unforgiveable sin in the 2016 election cycle: he became someone he wasn’t. His brand wasn’t built on reciting talking points or resorting to personal attacks. Instead, the Rubio brand was “the New American Century” that provided opportunity for all no matter their background. In the end, changing his rhetoric to match a polarized electorate instead of using his rhetoric to unite was his downfall. Words matter.
As Marco Rubio reflects on 2016, I hope he pencils in some time to listen to his inspiring announcement speech from almost a year ago. Perhaps it’s the pep talk he needs to move past 2016 and work to regain the trust of Floridians and Americans. If his year-old rhetoric is able to convince Rubio to stage a comeback, he might be the next “Great Communicator” after all.