MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—The Rubio collapse was real. And for the first time Tuesday night, Marco Rubio admitted it.
“I know many people are disappointed. I’m disappointed with tonight,” he said at his primary night rally in Manchester. “You have to understand something: Our disappointment tonight is not on you. It’s on me. I did not do well on Saturday night, but listen to this: That will never happen again.”
Only a few days ago Rubio appeared poised to run away with the second leg of his “3-2-1” strategy, or perhaps even make a run for a wounded Donald Trump and begin with a “3-1” start. Either a first- or a significant second-place finish would have cleared the “establishment lane” of competitors such as Gov. Chris Christie; Gov. John Kasich; and, after another state or two of aimless money-burning, Jeb Bush. Natural nominating forces would have pushed Rubio—with the most room to grow and the most support within the party—to the top in the long term.
And then, during Saturday night’s debate, he was discovered to have been a replicant all along. He “melted,” as Christie put it. As of late Tuesday night, Rubio was in a three-way battle for third place with Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz—and technically sitting in fifth place as of this writing.
The early atmosphere at Rubio’s event in Manchester’s Radisson Hotel—a frustratingly crowded hub of political media activity during the New Hampshire primary—was indeed mired in puzzlement. There was near silence as the two Fox News screens on display called New Hampshire for Trump. Things pepped up a bit when Fox announced that Christie, who’s been hammering Rubio ruthlessly the past week, would finish in sixth place. An even louder series of cheers broke when Fox called Sen. Bernie Sanders the victor in the Democratic contest.
But even as the bad news was rolling in, his supporters weren’t taking to the sort of despair that, say, Bush supporters would had he finished beneath Rubio, that Kasich supporters would had he finished anywhere below second, or that Christie supporters are taking right now. And that’s because still, even after the debate malfunction, Rubio is still perceived as the strongest of the four.
“By no means do I think this will impede his prospects going forward,” said Ben Markowitz, a Harvard student who came up to canvass for Rubio during the closing stretch. “In the South, someone like John Kasich—he has no organization there. He went all-in here. Only now he has to start building an organization.” What about Jeb? “What about him? ‘Please clap.’ He’s going to do a lot of asking. I don’t think he’s going anywhere.” And he’s pleased that Christie, Rubio’s tormentor, is now facing the exit: “I’m not going to complain about that.”
Others were mystified at how quickly Rubio’s good fortune reverted, almost from a matter-of-fact perspective. “It doesn’t clarify the race at all, not at all,” said Dwayne, who wouldn’t give his last name, of Dunbarton, New Hampshire. “The people who I expected to be dropping out after the race are actually doing far better than I expected. Should be interesting to watch.” And Leslie Mason of Manchester thought it was “unfair” the way Rubio’s debate repetition was portrayed: “The thing about repeating the talking points, I think he didn’t feel that they really understood the point: that Obama was fundamentally trying to change the fabric of the nation.” She still held out hope that Rubio could return as more results trickled in but didn’t think it was a fatal blow if he didn’t.
The modestly priced bar at the event mitigated whatever disappointment existed, but you still didn’t get the sense that they feel their guy is toast. And a lot of that has to do with Markowitz’s read of the race. Kasich had a surprise second-place finish, but it still took him more than 100 town halls and a near-total dumping of limited resources in one favorable state to lose to Trump by roughly 20 points. The same goes for Bush—booed loudly by the Rubio crowd when his Tuesday night speech aired—who hustled nearly as hard to finish several percentage points behind in the low teens. Bush, unlike Kasich, has the organization to compete in South Carolina and beyond; like Kasich, he still represents a brand of center-right conservatism that the majority of the party has shown no sign it wants this cycle.
This idea—that only Rubio has the necessary cross-party appeal and resources to emerge from the establishment lane, bad debate or not—is what may account for his supporters’ ability to take Tuesday’s loss in stride and move South. The class of donors and operatives who so hoped that Rubio would wrap things up Tuesday night may be disappointed but have no reason to consider this the last battle. As Rubio said in his speech, “We did not wind up where we wanted to be, but that does not change where we’re going to be at the end of the fight.”
This theory assumes, though, that Rubio occupies a naturally large space that neither Bush nor Kasich is capable of filling. The part about no one being able to fill it besides Rubio may be true. But what if New Hampshire was a sign that voters do consider Rubio a lightweight, and his space just evaporates? Or Bush continues to bleed votes from Rubio eternally?
Cruz and Trump have won the first two nominating states. History dictates that one of them will be the nominee, and they’re the favorites heading into South Carolina. With the very notable exception of Newt Gingrich in 2012, South Carolina always picks the Republican nominee. The party doesn’t just need to settle on an establishment nominee around whom to rally—it needs that person to be a great candidate with a strong campaign to pull off what would be a history-defying comeback against Trump or Cruz. Rubio was eyed as the only candidate of the four who could fill that role. What if he can’t?