Can Marco Rubio Even Win a Primary?

He’s the GOP’s strongest candidate, right? But what if he can’t win a single early primary? The Rubio problem no one is talking about—yet.

12.04.15 6:00 AM ET

Everybody I know, I mean everybody, thinks Marco Rubio is the strongest Republican candidate. Yes, there’s a debate about how strong. Some say he’d beat Hillary Clinton, some say that what with some of the extreme positions he’s taken so far in this race, he’d be hard-pressed to do much better than Mitt Romney’s 206 electoral votes plus maybe his own Florida. So there’s a debate about that. But there ain’t much debate that he’s the, shall we say, least unelectable of the lot.

But here’s the thing. To win the general, he has to win the primary. And on this count, as things stand, he’s hurting. I mean he’s in big trouble. Ed Kilgore of New York magazine had a post about this earlier this week, but this is worth digging into in more detail.

Start with the first four big races—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Rubio is behind in all of them. In three of them, seemingly way behind.

How often does it happen that a presumed frontrunner can lose the first four contests and stay in the race? On the Republican side, it’s never happened. In 2012, Mitt Romney won New Hampshire, and with respect to Iowa, on the night itself, we all thought he’d won that (the state was called later for Rick Santorum, but Mittens got the mo). Romney also won Nevada. In 2008, John McCain took New Hampshire and walloped the competition in South Carolina. Before that, George W. Bush won early states, and Bob Dole (not New Hampshire, but Iowa), and Bush Sr., and so on.

The opposite—a presumed frontrunner blowing off or losing the first few because he’s going to make a roaring comeback starting in state X—never seems to work out. The obvious example here is Rudy Giuliani in 2008. He skipped the first primaries—even though he’d been running second in New Hampshire as late as early December—and bet everything on Florida. But, largely because he’d been such a zero in the early contests (he ended up a distant fourth in the Granite State), he tanked in Florida and withdrew.

In the modern primary era, which started in 1976, almost no one has won a major-party nomination without winning at least one early contest. The one partial exception here is Bill Clinton. But those were very specific circumstances.

First of all, an Iowan was in the race, Tom Harkin, so Clinton and the other Democrats didn’t even bother to compete there, and Harkin won 77 percent of the vote. Second, Paul Tsongas was almost a favorite son in New Hampshire, since he was from Lowell, Massachusetts, right on the border. Third, Clinton was enduring his Gennifer Flowers-draft dodger baptism of fire at the time of New Hampshire, so when he finished a strong second, that was under the circumstances just about as good as a win and enabled him to carry on, arguing that he’d endured the bad press and came out alive. Fourth, Clinton led in most of the national polls then, so he was more able to absorb an early blow or two than Rubio, who is tied for a pretty distant third  in national polls. And fifth, everyone knew then that the Southern states, where Clinton was going to romp and rack up delegates, were just around the corner.

So there is basically no precedent for losing a bunch of early primaries and carrying on, let alone winning the nomination. Now, let’s look at some of Rubio’s numbers.

In Iowa today, he’s a distant fourth,  with around 12 percent to Donald Trump’s 27 percent. New Hampshire is the one early state where he’s not off the boards completely, but even there he’s not in great shape: He’s second with 12.5 percent to Trump’s 26 percent. In South Carolina, he’s basically tied for third with Cruz,  but again, both have less than half of Trump’s 29 percent. Nevada is less obsessively polled than the first three, but the latest one, from mid-October, has Trump miles ahead with 38 percent. Rubio is at 7.

So that’s the big four. If anything, after that, it gets worse for Rubio. Here is the official GOP primary schedule. Here is the most comprehensive list of polling from every state that I’ve seen. Match them up against each other and see for yourself. But because I’m a nice guy, I’ll give you a little taste for free.

After Nevada comes the big date of March 1, Super Tuesday, when 12 states have primaries or caucuses. Most of the big ones are in the South—Texas, Georgia, Virginia. In Georgia, Rubio is right now a distant fourth. He’s also a distant fourth in Texas, where Trump and Cruz are tied for first. In Virginia, things look better: He’s only a distant third.

As for the other nine March 1 states, Rubio leads in none of them and looks to be better positioned in only two, Massachusetts and Colorado. Vermont Republicans are also voting that day, and I could find no polling of Vermont Republicans at all (but they’re so crucial!). So according to today’s polling, the best—best!—Rubio can hope for coming out of Super Tuesday is three wins in the first 16 contests. And two of those wins would be in Massachusetts and Vermont, two states where he or any Republican is going to lose next November by at least 25 points. If you’re trying to tell conservatives in the South and Midwest that you’re their man, it’s literally better to lose those two states. Colorado would be the one state that Rubio could claim as actually meaning something, but even if he overtook Trump there, he’d be 1-13 (tossing out the deep blue states). In the real red states—Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Idaho—as of now, Trump is the guy who’s killing it.

You might be thinking three things. First, well, how good is that polling? All right—some of it is old. October, September, in a few cases even earlier. Ben Carson is still holding his own in some of these state polls, and presumably he’s slipped. But the thing about Carson’s slippage is that we don’t have any reason to think Carson defectors are transferring to Rubio. They’re probably moving to Trump and Cruz at least as much as to Rubio.

And you might also be thinking, well, what about the delegate count, because it all comes down to delegates? OK then, here is a little info on each state’s delegate allocation process. Most states have proportional allocation according to vote share, or they’re proportional with a complicated trigger, or they’re a hybrid. It’s all complex, but the long and short of it is that you can’t keep finishing fourth with 7 percent and expect to be collecting enough delegates to give you any leverage or juice.

And this leads us into the third thought you might be thinking, which is what about Florida? Here’s where Rubio has a reed of a chance to save his skin. Florida votes on March 15. So does Ohio. Interestingly, both are winner-take-all delegate allocation. If somehow Rubio were to win both of those, that’s 165 delegates in one night (1,237 are needed to win), and a huge dose of momentum.

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But but but...26 states vote before those two. That’s an awfully long time to expect to be hanging around if you keep finishing third and fourth. And, oh, here’s the current polling in Florida and Ohio: In Florida, Trump leads Rubio by 36 to 18 percent, and in the most recent Ohio poll, Rubio’s in sixth place at 7 percent.

For such a good general election candidate, Rubio is looking like a pretty lousy primary candidate! How can he survive this? He probably can’t. He needs a couple sugar daddies to keep him alive, who don’t mind underwriting a series of out-of-the-money finishes. And what he really needs is for Trump to collapse. If Trump falls apart, Rubio is in the game. If he doesn’t, it’s very hard to see Rubio’s numbers changing much, and if they don’t, it’s just not in the cards for someone finishing third and fourth repeatedly to hang in for that long.

Should make for an interesting January between those two.