In politics, like comedy, timing is everything. As the results trickled in from the eleven states voting for a Republican presidential nominee in the Super Tuesday primaries, it became clear the butt of that particular joke was Marco Rubio.
The biggest night of the 2016 electoral calendar thus far was a bad one for the young Florida senator, and, in a cruel twist, even the bright spots appeared only after the media narrative for the evening had been set and many Americans had gone to bed.
Expectations were both low and high for Rubio going into the contest. Low because polls predicted — accurately — that Donald Trump would dominate the evening. But Rubio had begun to viciously attack Trump in his campaign speeches and on the debate stage, senior Republican Party figures from 2012 nominee Mitt Romney to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were sounding the alarm about Trump’s takeover of their party, and other contenders to the anti-Trump title like Ohio Governor John Kasich and Texas Senator Ted Cruz were losing support and heading towards irrelevance.
That’s what pundits and party bigwigs thought anyway. The voters had other ideas. Trump claimed close to 50 per cent of the returns in Massachusetts, and won convincingly in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Meanwhile in Virginia, whose north contains the wealthy and well-educated outer suburbs of Washington DC, Marco Rubio came tantalisingly close to claiming what he had hoped would be his first victory.
As the polls closed in Texas and Oklahoma, where the once declining Cruz won big, the story of the night seemed to be that party favourite Rubio had under-delivered yet again. Even the terminally moderate Kasich was having a better time: while Rubio disappointed in Virginia, Kasich was neck-and-neck with Trump in Vermont.
Trump, more admirable as a political commentator than a potential president, summed up the night at his press conference–cum–victory speech. The cable networks are “declaring Marco Rubio the big loser of the night,” the mogul gloated. “Which is true; he didn’t win anything. He hasn’t won anything, period.”
Poor Marco; while all eyes were on Trump, the Minnesota caucus results were coming in, and the Florida Senator was top of the heap.
“Not only did I win most of the states,” Trump bragged, “the worst I had was a second.” As he spoke, viewers who cared to check the Minnesota returns would have spied Trump in a distant third, more than seven points behind the second-placed Cruz.
But none of this mattered. The networks had called the eastern states, the candidates had given their various speeches, and the narrative had been set: Trump was rolling tank-like towards the nomination, Cruz had reasserted himself as the only politician with a track-record of beating him, and Rubio remained the insider favourite who couldn’t actually win.
But after it was all over, a few facts came to light that made things look slightly brighter for the Rubio campaign and the Republican mainstream, which can’t stomach Cruz’s personality or Trump’s heterodox policy slate.
First there was that Minnesota victory, the morale-boosting first-place the Rubio campaign had been desperately seeking. And a small but meaningful statistic: Rubio’s share of the vote edged up above 20 per cent in Tennessee, ensuring he qualified for a share of that state’s delegates. (At 19 per cent in Alabama, with 98 per cent of the vote counted, it looks like he’ll fall short of the magic number there.) And Kasich ultimately failed to unseat Trump in Vermont, ensuring that Cruz and Rubio remain the only credible opponents to Trump.
These are just small blessings for Rubio. But they offer a Republican Party desperate to avoid handing its fate to Donald Trump a path forward.
Looking forward, the field is less favourable to Cruz, who does best with Evangelical voters, and Trump, whose prime territory is the South and the North-East. Delegate-rich Midwestern states like Michigan and Illinois vote in coming weeks, and Ohio and Florida — Rubio’s home state — hold winner-take-all contests on March 15. The New York Times’s Nate Cohn had calculated that even without winning a single state on Super Tuesday, Rubio had a viable path to the nomination with big wins in states like those ones.
If the Republican Party had been worried about the prospect of Donald Trump claiming its nomination last week, it will be in full-on panic mode now. The pressure to rally around one anti-Trump challenger will escalate, and both the candidates and other politicians will step up their assault on the frontrunner. A super PAC, Our Principles, exists solely to take the Donald down, and it is attracting big donors and campaign veterans to its side.
And if no candidates drop out and delegates continue to be split four or five ways, the unlikely prospect of a contested convention will become less unlikely. This could be its own disaster for Republicans however: Ronald Reagan almost took the nomination from Gerald Ford at the party’s 1976 convention, and Democrats had a notoriously chaotic one of their own in 1968. On both occasions, though each party ended up securing its favoured nominee, they would both go on to lose the general election.
But if the timing worked out poorly for Marco Rubio, it might also have worked out terribly for the Republican Party as a whole. Could it be that one of America’s longest standing political institutions left it too long to recognise Donald Trump for the threat he really is?