Rubio's Gaffe Knocked Establishment Off Its Preferred Track

Rubio's Gaffe Knocked Establishment Off Its Preferred Track
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In the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, the Republican primary looked like it was going to unfold the way many analysts have been suggesting for months that it would: Trump fades down the stretch, Marco Rubio finishes a solid second in New Hampshire, consolidates establishment support, and puts the race away in late March or early April.

In one brief exchange, Saturday night’s debate called this scenario into question. If you’re reading this column, you’ve probably seen the clip, but Chris Christie essentially mauled Rubio for speaking only in 30-second sound bites. To which Rubio responded by repeating the 30-second sound bite he’d already used.

Adding further uncertainty to the tidy narrative many analysts had predicted, the current or former governors – John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush – had by many accounts their strongest debates yet. Suddenly, three candidates who looked like disappointments emerged as the ready-for-prime-time options.

Now, we aren’t certain that this will hurt Rubio when voters cast their ballots Tuesday. This could turn into a line of attack that doesn’t really go anywhere. We saw some of these in 2007 and 2008: “Obama isn’t nearly as eloquent without his teleprompter” or “Obama stole parts of his speeches from Deval Patrick.” By most accounts, Barack Obama bombed in his initial debate on health care reform in 2007, and he also made cringe-worthy statements like loosely comparing the Virginia Tech shootings to outsourcing. But it didn’t matter much in the end.

But here’s the difference this time around, and it is a key one: Obama’s gaffes either occurred early in the campaign, which gave him time to right the ship, or after a year-long process where voters had become accustomed to him and were able to place his comments in a broader context. In a normal primary process, this is what would have happened with the 2016 GOP field as well. Rubio would be a well known quantity at this point, would have already been tested, and Christie, Kasich and Bush (and long-gone Scott Walker) would have had the opportunity to emerge as viable alternatives.

Instead, we’re on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, which is traditionally the major winnowing event, and a substantial wrench has been thrown into the process. If we were to end up with a situation where Kasich comes in second or third, and then Bush finishes well in South Carolina (with Chris Christie somewhere in the mix), we could have five or six viable candidates still running by the time the SEC primary rolls around in early March. The field would presumably winnow further after that point, but 822 of the 2,472 delegates – roughly a third – will have been awarded. You can probably see how a real mess plays out.

So how did Republicans end up in this situation? I think there are three factors.

1. The media

From almost the moment that Donald Trump began his campaign, the media have acted as a non-stop Trump hype machine. I’m not saying that they “like” Trump, but by incessantly covering his every controversial statement – which began before he was the front-runner – they have clearly enabled his rise. This is well documented. (Note in particular the chart in the linked Washington Post article.)

I also think it is likely beyond dispute that Trump realizes this and has played the media like a fiddle, using his outbursts to dominate news coverage, to suck the oxygen from other candidates’ campaigns, and to further enhance his standing in the polls. He is the king of free media.

Now don’t get me wrong, when a presidential candidate makes fun of a handicapped reporter or wants to institute a ban on Muslims entering the country, it is newsworthy. I also understand that news is a business, and it is sexier to lead with “Candidates asked to respond to Trump pledge to deport all illegal immigrants” than with “Candidates asked to respond to Bush’s tax plan.” Nevertheless, by focusing on the at times carnival-like atmosphere of the Trump campaign, wasting debates with questions such as “Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?” and generally playing along with the billionaire businessman’s strategy, the media (and this includes many of conservative outlets) have left Republicans fairly unprepared for this moment.

I should add that I don’t blame Trump for this mess. He wants to be president, and he figured out a way to stay atop the polls for far longer than anyone expected. For that matter, he may still win this thing, and he’s clearly tapped into a large energy base in the Republican Party.

2. The other Republican campaigns

Of course, the media in many ways reflect the campaigns being run, and Trump’s competitors have been grossly inept at handling The Donald. From dismissing him as a boor to attacking his lack of conservative bona fides – when he wasn’t really trying to appeal to movement conservatives – the campaigns have been one step behind Trump all the way.

Along these lines, his rivals have been slow to define themselves. We all have things we think of when we consider a candidate; the particulars likely depend on whether you are a supporter or opponent. Ted Cruz is the “true conservative” and Marco Rubio is the charismatic “new kind of Republican.” But what exactly is John Kasich’s angle? Or Jeb Bush’s? Who are they marketing their campaigns to? The lack of clear strategies from these candidates is one of the reasons they’re only getting scrutiny at the 11th hour.

Again, the media’s focus on Trump has made it difficult to break through. But that’s what campaigns are paid to do.

3. The Republican National Committee

Finally there’s the RNC, which, like so many great generals, is guilty of fighting the last war, not the current one.

To wit, in 2012 Michael Steele looked at the Democrats’ lengthy 2008 primary, concluded (correctly) that it had helped them, and set the Republicans on a similar schedule. It backfired: Even though Mitt Romney accumulated delegates at roughly the same rate-per-contest as John McCain had four years earlier, the fact that the primaries were more spread out made it virtually impossible for him to wrap the race up before April.

In reaction to this, Republicans this time have opted for a compressed schedule, with primaries beginning in February instead of January, and with a third of all delegates allocated within a month. This would have been perfect for Romney, but in a deep field like this one, with a front-runner like Trump, it has gone awry. In the current situation, where other candidates are only getting serious looks after voting has begun, it hurts what could be a fascinating deliberative process.

It's entirely possible that Rubio will come in second in New Hampshire, perhaps validating the "three-person race" narrative that the media was eager to write.  It's possible that he stumbles in New Hampshire, but rights the ship soon thereafter.

It is also, however, possible that he's been exposed as not ready for prime time.  If that is the case, then it is coming awfully late in the game for the establishment wing of the party to vet and settle upon an alternative. I declined to endorse the "three-person race" theory for a reason.  My overarching view of the GOP primary remains effectively the same as it has been since last January: Chaos and uncertainty predominate.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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