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Marco Rubio's strategy is utterly baffling

Scott Olson/Getty

There's something odd about Marco Rubio's presidential campaign: He hasn't been doing all that much, er, campaigning in the early states.

Unlike most recent presidential nomination winners, who have invested serious time and effort into campaigning and building organizations in at least one of either Iowa or New Hampshire, Rubio has taken a positively relaxed approach to both. He doesn't show up very often, doesn't do much campaigning when he is around, and doesn't seem to be building very impressive field operations.

And it's raising eyebrows. James Pindell of the Boston Globe wrote last week that Rubio's New Hampshire surge was "riddled with doubts," and that GOP insiders are bemoaning his "lack of staff" and "activity." National Review's Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson reported Wednesday that Rubio's "weak ground game" was angering Iowa Republicans. And the New Hampshire Union Leader wrote an editorial headlined, "Marco? Marco? Where's Rubio?"

For a candidate who's so often deemed "The Republican Barack Obama," it sure seems like Rubio has missed some key lessons from the president's historic 2008 campaign. And this isn't good optics for a candidate who's already been criticized (somewhat unfairly) for missing lots of Senate votes, either.

Rubio seems uninterested in campaigning hard or building a ground operation in Iowa and New Hampshire

The conventional wisdom is that a candidate needs to win either Iowa or New Hampshire to win the nomination. In fact, every nominee for decades has done that, except for Bill Clinton in 1992 (an odd year in which the Iowa caucuses effectively "didn't count" because Iowan Tom Harkin was running). Candidates who've tried to "skip" both early states in hopes that a later win will propel then to prominence have failed miserably.

Furthermore, said conventional wisdom continues, the way to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire is to work hard on the ground. The candidate should spend a lot of time there. The campaign should build up a network of local relationships, winning over supporters one by one. And the campaign should focus on organizing, to identify committed voters and make sure they actually turn out to the polls. (Organizing like this helped power Barack Obama to victory in Iowa in 2008.)

Yet Rubio doesn't appear to be focusing on any of this:

  • Though a win in New Hampshire could ensure that Rubio's the only mainstream Republican left standing, he's spent fewer days there this year than any other GOP candidate except Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum, according to WMUR.
  • In Iowa, Rubio has "rarely left the Des Moines area for campaign events," according to Alberta and Johnson.
  • Rubio has just seven paid New Hampshire staffers, according to Pindell — far fewer than Jeb Bush's 20, Donald Trump's 15, and even Carson's 10.
  • And Iowa and New Hampshire politicos have both complained that Rubio's campaign seems uninterested in winning their endorsements. (Unsurprisingly, Rubio hasn't gotten many.)

Now, it's not that Rubio is ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire. Indeed, his operation has spent millions on ads in each state. His team just doesn't appear to be spending time on this nuts-and-bolts campaign activity that so many political professionals think is crucial to actually winning.

Rubio's team has been arguing that campaigning is overrated

If we believe what Rubio's advisers are saying, they aren't using these tactics too much because they genuinely believe their effectiveness is overrated. They're saying that they think ads and media coverage, not field or campaign events, are the keys to victory.

"More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa," Rubio's campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, told the New York Times. And Alberta and Johnson report that Rubio's team believes "a sprawling operation weighs down a campaign and wastes precious resources that could be spent on TV ads that reach more voters." (Presumably, Rubio isn't making more campaign trips to the early states so he can spend more time raising money that can fund these crucial ads.)

Perhaps Rubio's team is right, and most other campaigns are just wasting their resources by spending big on organizing. But it's a questionable hypothesis. So far this year, ad spending appears to have had little relation to candidates' poll standing. (It has definitely enriched many political consultants, though.)

Ad spending graphic

Ad spending from candidates' campaigns and outside operations as of this week. (Javier Zarracina / Vox)

Another possible explanation is that Rubio's campaign is trying to savvily lower expectations for his performance in both states, because neither is a particularly good fit for him. Iowa has lately tended to elevate evangelical favorites, and New Hampshire has sometimes opted for flinty, independent-thinking outsiders. Perhaps Rubio hopes he'll get a pass for doing poorly in both states because he didn't really try.

But that may be too clever by half. The evidence seems to indicate that if you want to win the nomination, you need to do really well in either Iowa or New Hampshire — otherwise, you quickly vanish from the media spotlight and from voters' thoughts, much like Rudy Giuliani did in 2008. If Rubio hopes to avoid this fate, he should probably get to work.

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