I gave a speech last night where I repeated my prediction that Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio would win their respective primaries. But I’m increasingly unsure where my confidence in Rubio comes from. Look at this chart. Can you easily pick out Rubio’s line? And even once you spy his violet thread, is there anything in that line to justify much optimism about his candidacy?
I keep telling people that I don’t believe Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination, but I also can’t tell a very convincing story at this point of what he does to lose it. But let’s say I’m right that he won’t win the nomination. What is there in this chart to suggest his support would flow to Rubio or Bush rather than to Carson, Cruz, or Fiorina?
Rubio is Trump’s stylistic opposite: young where Trump is old, Hispanic where Trump is white, courtly where Trump is brash, hopeful where Trump is angry, intellectual where Trump is instinctual, an insider where Trump is an outsider.
But Rubio is also Trump’s substantive opposite. Rubio is known for his work on immigration reform, his fiscal and social conservatism, and his closeness to the neocon wing of the Republican Party. Trump is known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his heterodoxies from fiscal and social conservatism, and when he gets specific on foreign policy, his instincts appear dovish.
The best argument that Trump’s support would run to Rubio is that Republicans will somehow get the message that Rubio is their best chance to win the White House, and they’ll vote accordingly. But if Republicans gave a damn about that message — or about the messengers who might deliver it — they wouldn’t be supporting Trump in the first place.
After the last Republican debate, there was talk of — and some evidence for — a Rubio surge. And Rubio, to be fair, is in third place now.
But Rubio's support is roughly a third of Trump’s vote share — and it looks to have come largely at Jeb Bush’s expense. Imagine Rubio sees another surge, though. Rubio could take all of Bush’s voters and then add all of Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore’s voters, and he would still be trailing Trump.
According to the Huffington Post’s polling averages, Trump, Carson, Cruz, and Fiorina now command 61.3 percent of the Republican vote. To make the math work for Rubio, you somehow need an explanation for why he’s going to rip votes from the outsiders — the candidates who are everything he isn’t, and whom Republican voters seem to be favoring precisely because they don’t want an insider like Rubio.
I wrote a few weeks ago that anyone in my position should be approaching this election with extreme humility — I didn’t predict the Republican primary would look like this six months ago, and so I shouldn’t pretend to understand its internal dynamics now. I still have trouble believing that any of the outsiders will win the Republican nomination. It still seems obvious to me that Republicans should nominate Rubio if they want to win, so I keep assuming they’ll do that.
But perhaps that's just my old model — the one that didn't call this primary correctly — refusing to die. There’s no obvious evidence to support my prediction. My estimation of candidates clearly doesn't match that of the average Republican voter. I’m exerting a lot of energy here to deny that the GOP primary simply is the thing it looks like it is, and Republican voters simply have the preferences they clearly, in poll after poll, say they have.