So in the past week or so, it seems that people have decided that Marco Rubio is going to be the GOP nominee. What people, you ask? Oh, you know—the kind of people a person like me means when he says “people.” Which is to say, not regular real people, but total political junkies, and, being on the side of the fence I’m on, mostly liberal total political junkies.
The logic is straightforward enough. It looks like the race will eventually whittle down to one outsider vs. one insider. The outsider could be Donald Trump or who knows maybe Ben Carson, with an outside shot at Carly Fiorina. As for the insider, not so long ago that was either Rubio or Jeb Bush or John Kasich, throw a dart. But Bush just keeps getting worse and worse, and Kasich looks increasingly goofy. This is a great mystery so far. Here’s a guy 20-something years in the public eye. He should be better at this. But he’s not. An NBC/Marist poll that came out Monday showed Kasich on the march in New Hampshire over the last month, but in the wrong direction—he’s gone from 12 to 6 percent. In Iowa, he’s nowhere.
So that leaves Rubio as Mr. Insider. He’s been good in the debates, has gained some ground in most polls, and at least conveys the impression of actually trying. And since none of my people can really believe that Trump or Carson is going to win the actual nomination, it’s going to have to go to the insider in the end. Hence, Rubio.
Now, here’s the second thing these people believe: Rubio frightens them. They think he could win. “He’s the one who makes me nervous,” they say.
Well, of course he could win. And I don’t deny that he has certain attributes the others lack. But I think my little focus group is over-sweating this. So herewith, four reasons why Rubio might be formidable, and four corresponding reasons why he’s being overrated.
Reason One: This whole youth business. Let’s face it, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is the spring chicken. At least she’d be shy of 70 when inaugurated. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden probably couldn’t last two terms. So Rubio can lay it on thick with all that cloying rhetoric about the future and passing torches to a new generation. The media really fall for that. Oh, and speaking of…
Reason Two: It seems the media like him. They sure like him more than they like Hillary. If she’s the nominee, the default narrative in the media will be something like “fresh-faced new figure takes on tired old hag.”
Reason Three: The Latino vote. You’ll be reading a lot if he’s the nominee about how he won 55 percent of the Latino vote in his first Senate run in Florida in 2010. The press will be full of breathless stories about how if he can replicate that, the Democrats are doomed.
Reason Four: He seems reasonable and totally unthreatening, which may make it hard for Democrats to sell people on the idea that he’s a right-wing extremist. There’s an art for these wingers in knowing how to emphasize all the non-extreme stuff and really play down the extreme parts. Rubio is better at that than the others. A case in point is that woman-on-the-$10-bill business from the second debate. Three of them said Rosa Parks, but Rubio said it first. This was after Rand Paul said Susan B. Anthony, which isn’t bad, but Anthony doesn’t cover nearly as many reassure-mainstream-America bases as Parks does. Also keep in mind that he had that crackerjack answer about Black Lives Matter recently, which was likely the best response to the movement by a GOP candidate. If Rubio can keep doing things like that, the “No, you fools, he’s a true right winger!” counter-narrative might be very tough to advance.
All right. Now, here are the reasons why Rubio is eminently beatable in a general election.
Reason One: His youth story line can be very easily countered. Picture a Clinton-Rubio debate. Rubio prattles on about youth, the future, optimism, what have you. Mrs. Clinton? “Well, look, the Senator is undoubtedly younger than I am, that’s an objective fact. But if we’re talking about which one of us has the policies of the past, I’d say voters should look beyond mere age. Which one of us wants to keep fighting the Cold War in Cuba, and which one of us wants to move toward a new future there? Which one of us opposes gay people getting married, a policy of the past that large majorities of Americans no longer support? Which one of us would allow no abortions even in the case of rape and incest, which is literally kind of a 19th-century position? Which one of us not only opposes raising the minimum wage but opposes the existence of a federal minimum wage law, which would us all the way back to 1937, the last time this country had no federal minimum wage? That’s the candidate of the future?” Boom. If she said something like that and made two good commercials and Democrats in general hammered away at it, Rubio would shut up about the future pretty fast.
Reason Two: The women’s vote. Let’s go back to that abortion sentence above. It was at the first debate that Rubio said no rape or incest exceptions on abortion. Now, if he becomes the nominee, he’ll try to walk that back in some way, at least rhetorically, and he’s usually been clever and slippery in the way he’s worded it. No Republican nominee since abortion became a public issue has ever opposed exceptions for rape and incest. It’s an extreme position that should, if the Democrats hit it the right way, cost him a few points among suburban women in all the key swing states.
Reason Three: The Latino vote. He’s not getting close to 55 percent among Latinos. OK, some say, but what if he gets a mere 40, isn’t that enough? Well, maybe, maybe not, depending on other factors. But after being for immigration reform, he’s now basically against it and against a path to citizenship, although here too he is slippery. He says now that we should postpone the citizenship debate for 10 or 12 years, which means that if he serves eight, he won’t be the guy to be doing anything about it.
So that’s a way of being against it without saying the words “I’m against it,” but people aren’t stupid. In one recent poll that looked especially closely at Latino preferences (PDF), Clinton led Rubio among Latinos 61 to 31 percent (statistically, no different from how she fared against Bush or Ted Cruz). I would bet you today that that’s about how it will end up if those two face each other. And that ain’t enough.
Reason Four: The Electoral College. My long-suffering readers know that I bang on about this a lot, but the Democrats have a big advantage here, and I see nothing about Rubio that will shake this up. Rand Paul could have beaten Clinton in Colorado and Nevada, maybe even Ohio. Not Rubio. And fine, let him win Florida. A Democrat can still get 300-plus electoral votes without Florida.
So there you have it. Calm down, people. Rubio is better than the rest of the field. That’s about all that can be said of him at this point.