July 15th, 2020


Were the seeds of Rubio's destruction planted early?

Sean Sullivan

By Sean Sullivan

Published March 17, 2016

MIAMI --- Marco Rubio had finished speaking at a South Carolina brewery last July when a crowd of people eager to talk to him closed in. Among them was a TV reporter.

Rubio's team wasn't happy. His personal aide was visibly frustrated as he tried to catch the eye of the Florida senator's press secretary. As with all Rubio events, interactions with reporters were only supposed to take place at a designated time and place, not on the fly. For a brief moment, they had lost control of the situation.

It was a telling occurrence in Rubio's 11-month presidential campaign, which ended here Tuesday night after an embarrassing blowout defeat in his home state. One of the cornerstones of Rubio's campaign was its hawklike protection of virtually everything the candidate said and did.

The caution showed in his public remarks, which stuck studiously to the message he was trying to emphasize. It showed in his relationship with the press, which was mostly limited to brief news conferences and select interviews. It showed in his interaction with voters, which was minimal compared to some rivals. It showed in his carefully constructed rallies and town hall meetings, where questions and audience participation were limited while technical elements such as lighting and sound were first-rate.

But in the final two months of his campaign, the closed-off strategy caused Rubio problems - and when he deviated from it, the results were generally positive. The contrast raises the question of whether Rubio would have been better off opening himself up more from the beginning.

One typical encounter came in New Hampshire on Feb. 2, just hours after a stronger-than-expected third-place finish in Iowa. As he met with voters at a diner, a Bernie Sanders supporter tried to position herself to ask him a question about nuclear weapons. Rubio's staffers - clearly worried about an awkward encounter unfolding in front of a pack of reporters - asked her to let him continue meeting with other voters. She wasn't happy.

Rubio acknowledged the woman and her friends, also Sanders supporters. "Let me say 'Hi' to these people," he said. But an aide signaled Rubio not to engage with the group. "I'll see you guys in a second," he said as he walked to a camera to do a TV interview. He didn't see them again.

The biggest crack in Rubio's extra-cautious strategy arrived in a debate a few days later when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie mocked Rubio for robotically repeating his talking points. The damage helped knock Rubio down to fifth place in New Hampshire.

After that dismal performance, Rubio tried a new approach. On a flight to South Carolina the day after the New Hampshire primary, he took questions from reporters for 45 minutes on his campaign plane, stepping away only after there were no more inquiries. During the next couple of days in South Carolina, he chatted with reporters over lunch and invited them to interview him on flights around the state.

Throughout it all, there were no gaffes. No off-message moments.

Rubio rebounded to a strong second-place finish in the South Carolina primary, and afterward the access to him was once again more limited. Then he started losing again. In state after state. Suddenly, his campaign was on its last legs, admittedly for many reasons beyond his cautious approach to campaigning.

It seemed clear to his supporters when he arrived here in his home state last week that his days as a 2016 candidate were numbered. His crowds were smaller and less enthusiastic. Rubio himself seemed worn out, his voice hoarse.

He had a nothing-to-lose attitude similar to the one that came out on the flight from New Hampshire to South Carolina and in the days after. And just like those times, it seemed to light a fire under him.

On Saturday, fielding questions from reporters in Largo, Fla., Rubio flashed his most human moment of the past 11 months, riffing on the deep damage he said he thought Donald Trump has done to the country's political culture and discourse.

"Do you support him as the nominee if he's the nominee?" a reporter asked him.

Rubio paused. Then he shook his head. "I don't know," he said softly, with a voice full of emotion.

"I mean, I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for this country," he continued. "But the fact that you're even asking me that question - I still at this moment continue to intend to support the Republican nominee. But, it's getting harder every day."

It was a departure from the many months Rubio spent mostly sidestepping Trump and pivoting back to his own candidacy.

Rubio won positive reviews on social media. Video of the news conference posted on YouTube by Rubio's campaign was viewed more than 600,000 times. But it was too late. The next time Rubio grabbed national headlines was three days later, when he ended his campaign.


02/23/16:Rubio inherits establishment support, but has yet to win a state and has few clear prospects for doing so in the weeks ahead
02/22/16: For Cruz and Rubio, the moment has arrived: A three-man race with Trump
02/09/16: Marco Rubio just can't seem to shake that Obama comparison 02/01/16: Is the sun coming out for Marco Rubio in Iowa?
12/30/15: Marco Rubio's strategy: He wants to unite later by staying vague now
12/28/15:Past immigration stance haunts Rubio