Marco Rubio’s Third Place “Win” and the Questionable Value of Being the Establishment Candidate

With Marco Rubio seeming to claim the mantle of “establishment candidate” after Iowa, the new question becomes, “is it too late to matter?”

This Republican primary season has had enough twists and turns in it so far to satisfy political appetites for a decade, but it appears that the surprises are far from over. According to Five Thirty Eight’s “polls only” forecast, Donald Trump had a commanding 54% chance of winning the Iowa Caucus last night according to recent polls:

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However, as we all now know, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio outperformed their polling averages (by 5% for Cruz and a whopping 7% for Rubio) while Donald Trump sorely underperformed his.

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Human nature leads us to attempt to draw conclusions from things that we observe. But what can we possibly glean from what happened in Iowa last night? Some think that this confirms the age-old wisdom that nothing beats a strong “ground game” in Iowa. Others think that this proves that Trump is not a truly viable candidate. A large group doesn’t care, as it’s only Iowa.

As for me, my first reaction was that this was a huge win for Rubio, who I long expected would emerge from the pile of “establishment” candidates to mount a strong opposition to the angry populist campaigns of Trump and Cruz. The idea being that as other mainstream or establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie dropped out, their supporters would eventually coalesce with Rubio’s.

As of last night, I was confident that his very strong finish in Iowa was the first step toward doing that, and thought his little “victory lap” of a speech was quite justified:

Sure, he didn’t win, but he finished within a percentage point of Trump, a result that was unthinkable even two days ago. Just two weeks ago, Rubio was polling at 10.8% compared to Trump’s 30.0% and Cruz’s 26.4%. Five months ago, Rubio was in 7th place in Iowa, behind Trump, Carson, Cruz, Walker, Bush and Fiorina.

Today, however, I took a deeper look into the results and found something that surprised me: there might not be enough “establishment votes” available to help Rubio in any meaningful way. If you assume, as the Washington Post and I do, that the bulk of the existing Carson supporters to go directly to Trump, then Rubio has only a few other candidates to poach supporters from.

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About 60% of the vote went to Cruz*, Trump, and Carson (who held himself out as an anti-establishment candidate). Another 23% went to Rubio, while only 6.6% went to Bush, Kasich, Christie and Other combined.

*I don’t necessarily consider Ted Cruz, a sitting United States Senator, to be outside of the establishment, but he’s certainly positioned himself as such and is being treated as one. 

Iowa is a state with a strong independent streak and a history of voting for anti-establishment type candidates, but those awful polling numbers for Bush & Co. cannot bode well for Rubio. The establishment fell flat on it’s face last night, even by Iowa standards. Even in 2008 and 2012, when the winners of the Iowa Caucuses eventually fizzled out, the establishment didn’t do quite as poorly as it did last night.

In 2008, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Caucus, but Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain racked up 51% of the vote (and McCain was the eventual nominee). In 2012, Rick Santorum won the Iowa Caucus, but Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry collected 48% of the vote. For what it’s worth, Ron Paul also received 21% of the vote in that caucus.

New Hampshire is very unclear after Trump, with four candidates polling between 11.5% and 10.2%. Trump is up big again in South Carolina (36%) followed by Cruz (19.7%) and Rubio (12.7%), although Bush might be able to help Rubio in the unlikely event he were to drop out in time.

Ultimately, it appears that Rubio has staked a strong claim to the mantle of “establishment candidate.” At this point, the question becomes, “is it too late to matter?”