By Alex Knepper
For many months, the pundit class tried to force a narrative into existence to make Marco Rubio the front-running ‘establishment lane’ candidate, and perhaps even simply the front-runner, full-stop. There’s no doubt that Sen. Rubio did what he needed to do in Iowa, coming closer to Donald Trump than Trump came to Ted Cruz, but there are a number of obstacles to Rubio consolidating ‘establishment’ support in a timely manner that the over-excitable chattering classes seem to think.
New Hampshire jealously guards its ‘first-in-the-nation’ role, and rarely cares what Iowa has to say. It is usually the case that New Hampshire takes a maybe-mischievous enjoyment in rebuking Iowa. Despite the strange confluence of events that have marked Sen. Rubio as an ‘establishment’ candidate, he is really not a typical ‘establishment’ candidate: besides making his mark by defeating ex-Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate primaries, he has toyed with support for granting Constitutional rights to fetuses, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president in 2008 despite there being minimal incentive to do so, has called for a new Constitutional convention, stridently opposes same-sex marriage, and has refused to say how old the Earth is, on the grounds that he’s “not a scientist, man.” Keeping in line with the GOP’s typical delusions about youth and minority outreach, we are supposed to believe that since he’s slightly darker than Mitt Romney, under the age of 50, and listens to hip-hop, millennials and black voters are suddenly going to be interested in the same old Reaganite platform. Putting an old, losing message in a young, brown person’s mouth isn’t sufficient.
Cruz winning Iowa was undoubtedly a blow to Donald Trump, although Trump is still the prohibitive favorite to win New Hampshire by double-digits. But thanks to his Iowa victory, Cruz has earned a ticket to at least the SEC primaries, where he will have to contend with Trump for a significant share of the same voters. Yet, we should not be so sure that Rubio will have the ‘establishment’ lane to himself by then: New Hampshire independents are showing a strong preference for John Kasich, and there is no sign of that changing. Rubio has been in a traffic jam with Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie for months. If Kasich defeats Rubio in New Hampshire, he too will have earned a ticket through February. It is also possible that even Jeb Bush will stay in through South Carolina, a state in which he continues to over-perform his national polls and in which he has invested a large amount of money. Purely out of pride he may decide to fight on his home turf in Florida, too, rather than cede that to his former protege. Rubio may have the ‘establishment lane’ to himself by March, but his momentum could be severely undercut by likely losses to Trump in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Trump also has a commanding lead — and for failing to have fully consolidated the Kasich-Bush vote by then (Christie should be gone by South Carolina). If Trump manages to win Florida, too, which is more than possible, given recent polling (and the likely burst of momentum he could earn from wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina), Cruz might be too weakened to pose a serious threat to him after that, anyway. Only at that point would we have a Rubio-Trump race on our hands, and it’s not clear Rubio would be the favorite in that match-up.
Some of the betting markets now peg Rubio as the likely nominee. I think the edge is still with Trump, whose ability to win a quarter of the vote among a two-thirds Evangelical electorate — despite having no significant ground game and being a thrice-married, irreligious, vulgar New York City billionaire who has kissed a drag-laden Rudy Giuliani, was once ‘roasted’ on Comedy Central by Snoop Dogg, and once tackled Vince MacMahon and shaved his head — is actually extremely impressive. He overcame that which did in Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Marco Rubio is racking up Congressional endorsements and earning the support of new big-money donors, but if we’ve learned anything so far in this cycle, it’s that having Wall Street backers, Congressional cheerleaders, and a traditional pedigree might actually be liabilities.
Rubio has done everything he needs to do so far, but the rest of February poses more challenges than the mainstream media, which has underestimated Trump all along, is willing to concede. We should not let our desire for ‘normalcy’ — that is: for this election cycle to closely resemble the cycles of the past several decades — deceive us into thinking that this cycle has suddenly become ‘normal’ simply because Marco Rubio managed to come in a strong third in Iowa.