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FiveThirtyEight: With Marco Rubio officially in, 2016 GOP race gets real

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When Marco Rubio at long last jumps in the race tonight at Miami’s Freedom Tower, it will mark the entry of the first Republican contender who could really make it to the White House in 2016, writes Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight. Why, you might ask?

Rubio is both electable and conservative, and in optimal proportions. He’s in a position to satisfy the GOP establishment, tea party-aligned voters and social conservatives. In fact, Rubio’s argument for the GOP nomination looks a lot like Walker’s, and Rubio is more of a direct threat to the Wisconsin governor than he is to fellow Floridian Bush.

To win a presidential nomination, you need to make it past the party actors (i.e., elected officials and highly dedicated partisans). You can have all the strong early poll numbers in the world (hello, Rudy Giuliani), and your candidacy can still fail if party bigwigs come out against you. Rubio has a real chance of surviving — or even winning — the invisible (or endorsement) primary.

Anyone gaming out the prospective field of GOP nomination-seekers who doesn’t include Rubio at the very top is doing it wrong, says Enten:

Rubio doesn’t have the flaws the other two official GOP candidates have. He’s a hawk on foreign policy (with an 89 percent conservative foreign policy score in National Journal’s vote ratings), so he’ll be able to avoid the pitfalls of Rand Paul’s candidacy. And Rubio isn’t anywhere near as extreme as Ted Cruz and has not alienated his fellow senators, so we shouldn’t expect mainstream party members coming out of the woodwork to stop Rubio. But he’s a solid conservative; statistical ideological ratings put him right in line with the average Republican in the 113th Congress.

But isn’t he hemmed in by Jeb Bush, who has the market on Florida GOP supervoters cornered? Au contraire:

Unlike…  Chamber of Commerce favorite, Bush, who is expected to face resistance from the right of his party, Rubio was a darling of the tea party movement in 2010. Although Bush and Rubio are both from Florida, Rubio’s record suggests that he could be a more conservative alternative to Bush, rather than a direct challenger to Bush for the moderate/liberal wing of the GOP.

Remember when Rubio ran Charlie Crist out of the party in his 2010 Senate bid? He did so thanks, in part, to support from conservative stalwarts Sen. Tom Coburn, Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Paul Ryan. Rubio has a 93 percent lifetime rating from the Club for Growth. He has a real chance of winning the backing of tea party leaders such as Sen. Mike Lee. He has even managed to stay acceptable to Glenn Beck.

And yet, Rubio has some decent electability credentials. He isn’t polling particularly well with Hispanics right now, but Rubio pulled 40 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote in a three-way contest in his 2010 Senate bid. Mitt Romney, by contrast, won only 27 percent among them in the two-way presidential race in 2012.

FiveThirtyEight being FiveThirtyEight, all of this is documented with numbers resultant from a deep-dive study that includes some compelling evidence of the case for Rubio, including a favorability spread among Rubio, Jeb and Scott Walker — the candidate whose path to victory looks most like Rubio’s — that shows that conservative Republicans prefer Rubio over Walker by three points and Bush by 13, while Bush only takes moderate and liberal GOP voters by 11 over Rubio, compared with his 14-point advantage over Walker in that category.

In other words, Rubio has a path to victory — and it could start tonight in Miami.

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Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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