I am bucking both conventional wisdom and my own stated feelings in coming to the conclusion that Marco Rubio, if he somehow wins the Republican nomination, would lose to Hillary Clinton (though possibly not Bernie Sanders). I have long held that just about any Republican can beat the charisma vacuum that is Hillary, but now I have grave doubts about Rubio’s ability to win in November.
Let me first concede that polling data suggests the opposite. Right now the Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Rubio up by 3-4 points over Hillary, with Ted Cruz a little less than a percentage point over Hillary, and Donald Trump several points behind Hillary. The polls over the past couple of months have been fairly consistent, with both Rubio and Cruz holding edges over Hillary, but Hillary holding an edge over Trump (with Sanders beating everyone).
But general election polls nine months out before everything has been decided are not quite reliable. That said, the polls do confirm what many feel to be the case. Hillary Clinton has not one jot of her husband’s political skills or appeal, and if just about anyone besides a 74-year old socialist were her primary opponent, she would be toast by now. Sanders has a certain appeal to the millennial crowd, and the general electorate is likely unaware of the full extent of his radicalism.
For the Republicans, Rubio has a superficial appeal that would seem to sway more independent voters. He is not perceived to be as much of an ideologue as Ted Cruz, and apparently has a more vibrant appeal than the supposedly dour Cruz. Trump, meanwhile, reviles people on all sides of the political spectrum. I for one have not only sworn I would never vote for the man, but have said his nomination would cause me to disassociate myself from the Republican party. In that I am hardly alone. If he can’t even get Republicans to vote for him, then how could Trump possibly win?
As much as it pains me to say, Trump not only can win a general election, it’s possible he would even be a favorite to beat Hillary. Of all the reasons I personally dislike Trump and pray fervently he is not the nominee, his lack of electability has never been one. Even if a decent chunk of conservatives refuse to vote for him, he can actually bring in enough disaffected, middle class whites to offset the loss of Republicans. Besides, don’t doubt that more than a few people vowing not to vote for him will, in the end, blink.
We’ve just alluded to Cruz and his ideological rigidity and lack of charisma. Very many people, even on the right, seem to have a visceral hatred of the man.
So why would either be more likely to win in November than Rubio?
In the 1997 movie The Devil’s Advocate, the main character (and son of Satan, but we don’t need to get into the plot right now – but the movie’s worth checking out if only for Al Pacino’s amazing hammy scene at the end) Kevin Lomax is a defense attorney for a man accused of murder, played by Craig T. Nelson. That the man he is representing is a loathesome, New York real estate tycoon is not at all connected to the point I’m about to make, but it’s a funny coincidence. Anyway, during opening arguments, Lomax (played by Keannu Reeves) offers his opening remarks:
What I need to tell you won’t take very long at all. I don’t like Alexander Cullen. I don’t think he’s a nice person. I don’t expect you to like him. He’s been a terrible husband to all three of his wives. He’s been a destructive force in the lives of his stepchildren. He’s cheated the city, his partners… …his employees. He’s paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and fines. I don’t like hm. I’m going to tell you some things during the course of this trial that are going to make you like him even less.
But this isn’t a popularity contest. It’s a murder trial. And the single most important provable fact of this proceeding is that Alexander Cullen was somewhere else when these horrible crimes took place.
I want one thing from you. That’s it. One thing.I want you to ask yourself: “Is not liking this man reason enough to convict him of murder?”
When an angry Cullen confronts Lomax about these remarks, Lomax replies (pardon the very crude language):
I’m gonna bust my ass make sure they hate you. Because as long as you’re boning Melissa, you’re not home killing your wife!
There’s something to be said about laying your cards out on the table. It’s been established that Trump is, well, not a nice guy, and yet he’s winning over Evangelical voters (a topic for another day after a few rounds of heavy drinks). Cruz – not nearly as unlikable as he’s portrayed, but whatever – is also something of a known commodity. As Matt Walsh points out, Cruz is still able to win over voters through the strength of his ideas despite the lack of a strong charismatic appeal (though admittedly this was written after the Iowa caucus when things were looking a bit rosier for Cruz).
The point is though that Cruz and Trump have reputations that precede them. And that might be a good thing for their general election prospects. The voters already have a sense of what these candidates are (even if it’s exaggerated in Cruz’s case, but again, whatever), and yet Cruz still holds his own in a potential election matchup against Hillary. Moreover, one gets the sense that both Trump and Cruz will be able to withstand the blows that Hillary is going to land in debates and in the incessant advertising and media blitz to come. The thing is, people already have a good sense of who these men are, and there’s not much more that the Democrats can do to bring them down. And both men also will be quick to hit back just as hard. Neither man is a boy scout, and for general election purposes, that’s a good thing.
Which brings us to Rubio. The opposition dump that is to come on Marco Rubio is going to make whatever Right to Rise did look like a day at the beach. This has nothing to do with any personal issues that will get dug up, but rather how the Democrats will inevitably go after his “extremism.” Well all those Rubio supporters here in the primary pointing out Rubio’s conservative voting record are going to have to scramble when that voting record is suddenly more deeply explored by the media and the DNC – but I repeat myself. Sure they’ll do the same to Cruz, but again, that’s already known about him. Suddenly the squeaky clean boy wonder won’t look quite as “moderate,” and when his foreign policy bellicosity is added to the mix, suddenly he looks even more extreme than Cruz.
And how would Rubio respond to the attacks that are to come? This is where the rubber hits the road and my lack of confidence in Rubio comes to the fore. Does Rubio have what it takes to take on the Democratic party/Clinton machine? What I’ve seen of Rubio thus far does not impress me. His speaking style inspires some, but has me thinking he needs to hit the decaf. More seriously, I don’t see in him the type of person who can take an attack head-on and deftly go on the counter-attack. Even if one thinks the debate flub against Christie became an exaggerated talking point, it demonstrated a weakness that will be exploited in the general election. I don’t happen to think Rubio is dumb or programmed, nor am I confident that he has the chops to go mano y mujer against Hillary.
What’s more, I don’t think he will pull in as many non-Republicans as Trump, nor will he do as well among Republicans as Cruz. Will conservatives stay at home on election day if Rubio is the nominee? Not necessarily, but as was the case with Romney, I don’t think his nomination will help mobilize the base to engender even greater Republican turnout. Rubio will be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as just another Establishment Republican. He’ll get most on the right to dutifully go to the polls for him, but will they knock on doors for him? Will they hit the phone banks?
I’m not even certain Rubio will outperform Cruz among non-Republicans. There is a bitter anti-Establishment mood in this country, and Cruz is a much better vehicle for that feeling than Marco Rubio. Let’s be blunt – are the angry, white middle-class Americans going to storm the polls for one of the leaders of the Gang of Eight? Rubio supporters can roll their eyes if they wish at another invocation of the dreaded Gang of Eight, but it’s a stench that will not leave Marco. And while it’s a stench that will drive away disaffected independents, it will not draw in minority voters.
So I’m bucking conventional wisdom to say that of the three main Republican contenders, Marco Rubio is the most ill-suited to win this November election. Could I be wrong? Of course, I’ve gotten plenty wrong before – except about Jeb Bush not being the nominee. Go me. Therefore if your primary motivation for voting for Rubio is electability – first slap yourself for playing this stupid game because you probably voted for Romney and McCain for the same reasons, and second, know that you’re betting on the wrong horse.