In the race for the White House, still a year and a half away, Florida is opening up as the critical Electoral College prize in 2016.
Although much can still happen in the presidential contest, Sabato’s Crystal Ball writers Geoffrey Skelley, Kyle Kondik, and Larry Sabato find it increasingly clear: for the GOP to win 270 or more electoral votes, it must include Florida.
As Republicans eye the Florida prize, it seems appropriate that the two top-tier hopefuls in Crystal Ball’s rankings for the party’s presidential nomination are from the Sunshine State.
Rising to the number two spot of GOP A-listers is Sen. Marco Rubio. Florida’s junior senator benefits from a solid two weeks since announcing his campaign for the White House on April 13, and his newly minted second-place status on the Crystal Ball GOP list reflects that.
Leapfrogging over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rubio still trails fellow Floridian and ex-Gov. Jeb Bush. However, Sabato stresses just how fragile Bush’s lead is at this early stage of the race.
Bush, Rubio and Walker make up the first tier, but are ranked extremely close together, without a breakaway frontrunner.
The new standings for GOP candidates start with “Leading Contenders,” as Marco Rubio moves to second and Walker third, a reversal from earlier rankings. “Outsiders,” or second tier, is down to just U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Cruz jumps ahead of Paul.
Rubio’s improved standing is based on solid polling data. Polling aggregator RealClearPolitics found that Rubio’s average in nine 2015 polls prior to April 13 was 5.9 percent. Afterward his announcement, three surveys had Rubio averaging 13 percent, with a slight advantage in two.
Crystal Ball notes that Cruz enjoyed a similar bounce after his joining the race in late March, a surge that has receded a bit since, making it a possibility that Rubio’s bounce will be similar.
Then again, Rubio does appeal to a wider variety of Republicans, ranging from Tea Party loyalists to the GOP establishment. This could lead to broader support among Republicans, and is a major reason Rubio is now considered in the top tier.
At this point, Crystal Ball points out that Rubio has been relatively unknown compared to others in the GOP field, leaving him with room for growth as the campaign moves forward. Now an official candidate, they suggest poll numbers may be catching up to expectations.