This evening, a strong contender for the Republican nomination in 2016 will give a response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. His Name is Rand Paul.
To some, this statement may seem surprising; after all the media has already crowded Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) the GOP frontrunner for 2016. Rubio appears on this week’s cover of Time Magazine as the “Republican Savior” and has also been crowned the new leader of the GOP by the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza. However, for the five reasons I explain below, Rubio faces long odds at winning the Republican nomination in 2016, much less the White House.
This piece will focus on why Rubio is an unlikely nominee in 2016, but will also briefly contend that another “outsider” such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) would have a better chance at overcoming past trends and winning the GOP nomination than Rubio (although neither candidate would have much chance of winning the general election). (Note: Harry Enten makes a similar argument as to why Mr. Rubio won’t be elected president in 2016 here.)
- He’s too liberal (on immigration): As I will explain below under “he’s too conservative,” Marco Rubio would likely be the most conservative nominee since Barry Goldwater in 1964. However, Rubio is too liberal (or at least perceived as too liberal) on the exact wrong issue for a Republican candidate: immigration. Political observers will remember that Mitt Romney, while viewed as the “moderate” candidate on many issues in the 2012 primary field, ran hard right on immigration. Romney targeted primary opponents Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as too soft on immigration, while he made statements about “self-deportation.”
Immigration’s importance as an issue in the Republican primary looms large due to the placement of Iowa as the first contest during the primaries. Home to anti-illegal immigration crusader Rep. Steve King (R-IA), the Republican caucuses are a hotbed for the anti-immigration sentiments. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), having just supported a failed immigration reform effort, came in fourth place in the Iowa Caucuses in 2008. While the fate of the current effort to reform immigration is unknown at this time, whatever happens bodes ill for Rubio in Iowa. In the eyes of the anti-immigration activists, either 1) he will be the candidate who gave 11 million illegals amnesty or 2) it will be necessary to defeat him so he cannot enact amnesty if he becomes president. It is a lose, lose situation for Rubio. And, as I explain below, Rubio cannot fall back on New Hampshire to restart his campaign like John McCain did in 2008.
- The primary schedule is stacked against him: As Hillary Clinton would tell you, order matters when it comes to the primary schedule. As I discussed above, Iowa is a poor fit for Rubio. However, New Hampshire is not much better for the junior senator from Florida. In the three most recent contested GOP primaries in the Granite State, New Hampshire went for the more centrist candidate on the ballot (McCain, McCain, Romney), and before that went for an anti-free trade, anti-immigration populist in a divided field (Pat Buchanan). Rubio fits neither of these profiles particularly well.In addition, both of the first two primary states are not particularly diverse, with both ranking among the top ten whitest states nationwide. While certainly not impossible to overcome (see President Obama), Rubio would have to find a way to appeal to an electorate that is almost 100 percent white and not favorable towards immigration.
Should Rubio make it to South Carolina, he would face additional challenges. Since the days of Republican operative Lee Atwater, South Carolina has been known for its aggressive, nasty politics. Even politicians without a whiff of scandal can be brought down by the rough-and-tumble politics of the Palmetto State. And, as I detail in the next section, Rubio’s record has far more than a whiff of scandal. While Nevada would present a more favorable electorate than other early states, the difficulties Rubio would face in the other three early contests would overshadow a win in the Nevada caucuses.
Rubio would be expected to easily win the next state, his home state of Florida; any other outcome would be viewed as a failure. Then, until Super Tuesday, the primary process is mostly dominated by small caucus states that are similar in demographics to Iowa. In other words, the early primary process offers two sorts of states for Rubio: expected winners (Florida) and states that present considerable difficulties (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina). It would be hard for Rubio to prove himself as a viable candidate early unless he somehow was able to win one of these difficult early states.
- He will face too many allegations of corruption/scandal: As mentioned above, South Carolina has a reputation for dirty politics; even politicians with clean records (such as John McCain) can see their reputations sullied in this state. Among the scandals that have dogged Rubio recently are fines for campaign finance violations in his 2010 Senate race, having to pay back the Florida GOP after using the state party credit card for personal expenses such as remodeling his home, giving incorrect information about when his family emigrated from Cuba, and having close ties to scandal-ridden former Congressman David Rivera (R-FL). Also, in the mode of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards (D-NC) , Rubio’s charges to the state party credit card seemingly include a $134 haircut (something Rubio disputes). Each of the items listed above (no matter their veracity) could make a good attack ad in either a primary or a general election. And many of them will become part of attacks (perhaps from Super PACs) in South Carolina, if not before. Is it any wonder why Mitt Romney passed on Rubio as his VP nominee!?!
- It’s not his turn: Marco Rubio would be a perfect Democratic primary candidate: young, relatively inexperienced, pretty new on the scene. Unfortunately for him, he would be running in the Republican primary. Every Republican nominee since 1964 save one (George W. Bush) had run for President before and lost. And Bush’s father, as we all know, was a candidate for president in 1980 before being elected president in 1988.This pattern is, of course, more illustrative than deterministic, but it says a lot about Republicans as people. Overall, the party is characterized by being orderly and risk averse in picking their nominees; in other words, Republicans are conservative. While the party had some difficulties in picking Senate candidates recently (see, for example Todd Akin), they still selected Mitt Romney for President despite the presence of Tea Party activists throughout the process.
If the party were to buck this trend, they would be far more likely to go with someone in the mold of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) than with Rubio. Paul does not face the problem of being too liberal on immigration for the base and the structure of primaries is far better for him. Three of his dad’s (Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)) best states in 2008 and 2012 were Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. While Republicans may well go with a “safe” pick like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), Paul (much more than Rubio) has the potential to instigate a break with the past for the GOP.
The General Election:
- He’s too conservative: If Rubio were to somehow make it through the primaries, he would be ill-placed to win in November. In addition to the vulnerabilities relating to allegations of corruption/scandal listed above, Rubio is far too conservative to become president. According to DW-Nominate’s ideology scores (which run from -1 for most liberal to 1 for most conservative), Rubio has a score of 0.57, placing him as the seventh most conservative member of the Senate.
To place this in context, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has a DW-Nominate score of 0.595, just barely to the right of Rubio. While some like to compare Rubio to President Barack Obama, then-Senator Obama’s DW-Nominate Score was -0.373 as he ran for president, almost 0.2 units closer to the center than Rubio’s score of 0.57. Other recent senators who have run for president have had similarly ideological DW-Nominate scores to President Obama, with John Kerry (D-MA) having a score of -0.386, Bob Dole (R-KS) having a score of 0.338, and John McCain having a score of 0.38.
Rubio has cast a number of conservative votes since being in the Senate, including opposing aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, opposing the fiscal cliff deal, and opposing extension of the payroll tax cut in 2011. These votes and others give Rubio a DW-Nominate score that would likely make him the most conservative nominee since “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who had a DW-Nominate score 0.668 when he ran for president. Of course, Goldwater went on to be crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election as Democrats won a two-thirds majority in Congress. Rubio is roughly as conservative as George McGovern (D-SD) was liberal; McGovern’s -0.568 is almost the mirror image of Rubio’s 0.57. McGovern lost 49 out of 50 states in an epic defeat in the 1972 election.
As there is no indication that America is lurching to the right (indeed, the opposite may be true), it seems unlikely America would elect its most conservative (and indeed most ideologically extreme) president in modern history in 2016. Of course, Rubio likely will not even make it past the considerable obstacles he faces in the primaries. So while Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) may be the media’s flavor of the month, his (non-existent) candidacy may well have reached its high point on February 12, 2013, as he delivers the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.