A couple of months ago, Rubio's general election strength was conventional wisdom. "I sometimes want to run around the country grabbing Republican voters by the lapels and screaming, 'You idiots! Don’t you realize Democrats are a hundred times more scared of Rubio than any of these other guys?'" wrote Matt Yglesias back in January. Rubio was seen as a smart, nimble politician who could reassure moderates, appeal to Latinos (or at least blunt their turnout), and unify the fractious Republican Party.
But his poor performance in the primaries has led to a split in opinions on Rubio. One view is that he was always a weak candidate — it was a mass delusion on behalf of the political establishment to ever pretend otherwise.
The other is that the Republican Party has gone around the bend in ways that made Rubio, the party's strongest general election candidate by far, unacceptable to the Republican base.
I hold the second view. Rubio's primary-season weaknesses were general election strengths. He does hopeful better than he does angry. His record includes occasional pivots toward the center, particularly on immigration. His résumé was relatively thin, and while that reminded some Republicans of criticisms they made of Obama, it also left less to attack in a general election. Rubio was acceptable to all wings of the Republican Party even if he was the first choice of few.
The result is that Rubio could have unified the GOP while running to the middle. His rhetoric was often as partisan and fearmongering as anyone else in the race, but, crucially, he had a second speed, too — he was able to speak the language of optimism and uplift, he was able to come off more moderate than he really was, he was able to talk about the economy by making an argument about the future rather than just a divisive critique of the past.
None of this fit the mood of the Republican Party in this moment, but these are the political skills you need — or at least traditionally have needed — to win a general election.
Trump and Cruz don't have these skills. Cruz is the kind of hardcore conservative ideologue the Republican Party hasn't nominated since Barry Goldwater. Trump is an extremist with extraordinarily high unfavorables who could split the Republican Party, to say nothing of the kind of turnout he'll inspire among Hispanics, women, and young voters. Either candidate solves Clinton's turnout problems among Democrats, where she's faced a real enthusiasm gap compared with Obama.
This is the race the Clinton campaign didn't dare hope for. In recent years, the Republican Party has always turned to the candidate that looks best suited for the general election. In 2000, they went with George W. Bush, the seemingly moderate governor of Texas who ran as a compassionate conservative; in 2008, they went with John McCain, a politician Democrats and independents once liked so much that John Kerry tried to add him to the Democratic ticket in 2008; in 2012, they went with Mitt Romney, who had been a moderate governor of a very blue state.
There was nothing in this record to predict that Republicans would turn to a Cruz or Trump in 2016. But that's what they look to be doing.
Could Clinton still lose the general? Sure. Donald Trump is winning elections all across the country. American politics is a magical land of surprises. But the Clinton campaign couldn't ask for weaker opponents than Trump or Cruz. This is an outcome that gives them a chance to win back the Senate, to pull off the kind of landslide that's rarely seen in modern American politics.