In Rubio's fall, the perils of trying to out-Trump Trump

Marco Rubio had flaws as a presidential candidate, but he made them much worse by abandoning his vision to try to steal votes from Donald Trump. 

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio hugs his family after he announced that he is suspending his campaign at an event in Miami Tuesday.

Before Sen. Marco Rubio lost to Donald Trump in Tuesday's Florida primary, he told voters in his home state that they faced a stark choice between "optimism and fear."

It didn't work. After his 18-point loss to Mr. Trump, Senator Rubio withdrew from the presidential race. 

On one hand, Rubio was simply broadsided by the Trump phenomenon. He was never able to make significant inroads to present a credible challenge to Trump's candidacy.

But part of it was his own doing, too, political analysts say. Months ago, Rubio's cautionary words about voters' stark choice might have resonated, but by the eve of the primary it rung hollow.

Of all the mistakes leading to the Rubio campaign’s steep demise, the Florida senator's decision in early March to try to out-Trump Trump was among the worst. By temporarily descending to a game of petty insults and name-calling, Rubio compromised his core political persona as the sunny and youthful optimist in hopes of immediate gain. Instead, his campaign cratered, and he faces an uncertain political future since he's not running for reelection to the Senate. 

To political operatives, this is the importance of staying "on message" – not letting other candidates get you off balance. But more broadly, it serves as a reminder that, as a candidate, you are who you are, and desperate attempts to recast yourself often do more harm than good.

"It's a miscalculation for [Rubio] personally because if he'd stayed on the moral high ground – kept the sunny optimism – that's what people really coalesced around," said Victoria Farrar-Myers, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, in an interview Tuesday.

Noting the results, she added: "Even his own backers and supporters in the polls, people that were leaning toward him … are actually breaking late and going more toward Trump."

Ironically, Trump himself is a prime example of staying on message, despite the media storm around him. And he has kept his base of voters. But Ohio Gov. John Kasich, has done this in a quieter way, too. He has maintained his adult-in-the-room persona, and despite consistently low poll numbers, he won his home state of Ohio Tuesday. 

Sticking to his original plan might not have changed the ultimate course of the race. Rubio proved vulnerable to attack from Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas on immigration, and his positive persona seemed out-of-step with the national political mood. But his attempts to change his persona to capture voters from Trump and Senator Cruz only made things worse. 

He has since said he regretted his decision to briefly turn to mud-slinging, reflecting on how he could not defend his behavior to his teenage daughters. “I kind of said, ‘Gosh, you know what? It even got to me,’ ” he told The New York Times. “And I’m someone who’s run this whole campaign trying to be above all that stuff.”

It's a cautionary tale in the perils of short-term politicking. If Rubio wants to return to politics in the future, he's tarnished his brand.

"He completely divested himself of who he was in the name of trying to help the party, and so how do you recoup who you are?" asks Professor Farrar-Myers.

Rubio's political flip-flopping points to a broader reality faced by the political establishment. At a time when public mistrust in the Washington government is at an all-time high, those perceived as political "outsiders" get a longer leash. 

"Some politicians are going to get away with it more than others," says Justin Vaughn, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. "I wouldn't expect Bernie Sanders to flip-flop on something, but I think if he did his supporters would be less likely to punish him for it than if Hillary Clinton does or Marco Rubio does."

"And Donald Trump is the same way, he's not going to be held to the same standards as someone who’s perceived to be a representative of the establishment."

Governor Kasich has virtually no chance of winning the nomination, but his discipline helped him become the last establishment candidate standing in the Republican race. 

"Kasich is a classic case of a person who has stayed the course and been true to who he is," Farrar-Myers says. "He's not engaged in calling people names, he's clear on his message, he's been completely consistent.”

“It may be too little, too late,” she says, but with the political math suggesting that no candidate will win a majority of delegates before the July convention, Kasich has at least positioned himself as the establishment “dark horse.”

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