The Iowa Republican caucuses are over, and the media and the GOP establishment have announced the winner: Sen. Marco Rubio. That’s an odd verdict, since Rubio came in third, trailing Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. But Rubio gets the plaudits for several reasons. He did better than expected, finishing close to Trump. Rubio also gives the media a three-man race, which makes the election more suspenseful and exciting. He gives party leaders an option they find more palatable. And he validates what pundits expected all along: that Trump would fade, that Cruz is too harsh, and that in the end, the GOP would turn to a more electable nominee.
Rubio’s late surge in Iowa illustrates his appeal as a candidate. But we knew about his appeal all along. The flaw in predictions of a Rubio nomination was never Rubio. The flaw was that Rubio isn’t running in a general election or in the Republican Party of 2000. He’s running in the Republican Party of 2016. And there’s little evidence that today’s Republican electorate—as opposed to the media or the party establishment—is sufficiently unhappy with the top two finishers, Cruz and Trump, to nominate the guy who’s running third.
Since the beginning of January, seven national pollsters—CBS/New York Times, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN/ORC, ABC/Washington Post, Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP, and Monmouth University—have examined the state of the race. In these surveys, when Republicans and Republican leaners were asked which candidate they supported, the percentage who picked Trump or Cruz ranged from 52 to 60. (The Iowa results fell at the low end of this range: Cruz and Trump together drew 52 percent of Republican caucusgoers.) So most Republicans don’t just find Trump or Cruz acceptable; they prefer at least one of these two candidates as their first choice. When second choices are factored in, Cruz and Trump do even better. In the four polls that have asked that question, Trump got the first- or second-choice votes of 46 percent of Republicans. Cruz got the votes of 41 percent.
Nationally, Rubio has been a distant third. He averaged 11 percent in the seven polls, compared with 35 percent for Trump and 20 percent for Cruz. But let’s take Rubio’s dream scenario: Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and Gov. John Kasich drop out of the race, and all of their supporters switch to Rubio. That’s another 13 percent, which bumps Rubio up to 24 percent. That’s still well below Trump’s 35 percent. It’s not even enough to catch Cruz, if Cruz does half as well in luring voters from Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Sen. Rand Paul—who have been splitting another 13 percent of the Republican electorate—as Rubio, in this fantasy scenario, does among the Bush-Christie-Kasich crowd.
The NBC/Journal survey tested various ballot configurations to see what would happen as the lesser candidates dropped out. When the race narrowed to five candidates—Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and Bush—Trump led the pack at 36 percent, with Cruz next at 25 percent and Rubio trailing at 19 percent. With Bush and Carson removed, the remaining three still finished in the same order: Trump 40 percent, Cruz 31 percent, Rubio 26 percent. Finally, the pollsters removed Cruz from the ballot, giving Rubio his dream matchup against Trump. Trump won it, 52 percent to 45 percent.
In post-Iowa ads and interviews, Rubio’s campaign, a pro-Rubio super PAC, and the candidate himself are pitching him as the only candidate who’s broadly acceptable to Republicans. That’s an exaggeration. The ABC/Post survey did find that when Republicans and Republican leaners were asked whether they would “accept” each candidate or “find him unacceptable” as the nominee, Rubio ranked first, with only 22 percent calling him unacceptable. But Cruz did almost as well, with a 26 percent rejection rate. And Trump wasn’t far behind: 65 percent said he was acceptable; 32 percent called him unacceptable. The NBC/Journal survey posed a slightly different question: whether “you could see yourself supporting that person for the Republican nomination.” On that question, Rubio outscored Trump, but Cruz outscored Rubio. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans said they couldn’t support Rubio. Only 25 percent said they couldn’t support Cruz.
The CNN/ORC poll went for a visceral reaction. It asked Republicans and Republican leaners whether they would be enthusiastic, satisfied, dissatisfied, or upset if Trump, Cruz, or Rubio were the nominee. More respondents said they’d be upset if the nominee were Trump than if it were Rubio. But when the dissatisfied and upset respondents were pooled, Trump outscored Rubio, getting a thumbs down from 31 percent, compared with Rubio’s 37 percent. Cruz beat Rubio in both categories: His nomination left fewer respondents dissatisfied and fewer upset.
The Fox poll asked the bluntest question: “Are there any Republican candidates you would refuse to vote for against the Democrat in November?” The question was asked without naming the candidates. Trump scored the worst: Fifteen percent of Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for him. But Cruz and Rubio scored about the same, earning rejections from 6 and 5 percent of Republicans, respectively.
In the CBS/Times poll, Rubio led the field in acceptability: Only 12 percent of Republicans said they wouldn’t support him if he were the nominee, compared with 16 percent who wouldn’t support Cruz, and 18 percent who wouldn’t support Trump. But Trump and Cruz outscored Rubio in enthusiasm among Republicans, and Cruz beat Rubio on values and temperament. Only 24 percent of Republicans said Cruz didn’t share their values, compared with 27 percent who said Rubio didn’t share their values. And only 22 percent said Cruz lacked the “temperament and personality to be a good president,” compared with 25 percent who said Rubio lacked these qualities.
Rubio is an attractive candidate. He’s just the sort of person the Republican establishment would like to nominate. He fits what pundits expect in a successful politician, and on caucus night, he proved that he can get a lot of votes. But he didn’t win. And when you look at polls of actual Republican voters, as opposed to party insiders or talking heads, it’s far from clear that he can beat Cruz or Trump for the nomination. If Rubio fails, it won’t be because he isn’t the best candidate. He is. It’ll be because the Republican electorate has lost its ability to choose wisely.