Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida missed more than 50 percent of the Senate votes held during his presidential campaign, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for American democracy – or his reelection prospects.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada suggested Tuesday that Florida taxpayers should sue Senator Rubio for leaving their state without a legislator while he was “off playing around, running for president.”
Rubio, who had vowed not to seek reelection, changed his mind last week as the Florida race becomes increasingly crucial for Republicans seeking to maintain their control of the Senate.
While statistics confirm a substantial uptick in missed votes during both Republican and Democratic senators’ presidential campaigns, poor attendance is not a death sentence for a candidate’s political career – or the American political system. Presidential candidates’ absence from Senate voting is a consequence of the modern primary system, which requires candidates to spend far longer on the campaign trail.
“It can be very deceptive just looking at the percentage of missed votes, because it’s missing important votes that matters,” says Allan Lichtman, a professor of political history at American University. “And it’s really a consequence of democracy. You could have the party bosses [pick the candidate] behind closed doors, but I don’t think anyone wants to see us turn the clock on autocratic decisionmaking.”
Campaigns twice as long today
Sixteen of America’s 44 presidents were senators, but only three – Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama – have gone straight from the Senate to the White House. While Kennedy campaigned only for about 11 months as a senator, today’s candidates tend to spend more than twice as long on the campaign trail.
That’s thanks in part to a change four decades ago, when the method for selecting America’s presidential candidates moved to state primaries and caucuses instead of party leaders making a decision behind closed doors.
While experts and voters alike say that today’s primaries and caucuses still warrant improvement, with 38 percent of Americans calling the primary system “seriously broken,” today’s voter-driven contests can also be described as more democratic. And missing votes is just an inevitable aspect of this process, say experts.
“Now you have to campaign all the time, all over the country. It makes it very difficult to fulfill your duties as a … senator – you can’t do both,” adds Professor Lichtman. “The 1970s really made running for president a full-time job.”
While few decide to quit their jobs to focus on the campaign, Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas is a notable exception. In May 1996, the Senate majority leader left a 35-year career in Congress to make a final push ahead of the presidential election that fall.
Rate of missed votes: from 3 to 85 percent
The lifespan of senators’ campaigns in the 2016 presidential race varied, but when comparing percentages of missed votes rather than total votes missed, Rubio isn’t an obvious outlier.
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky had the best record, missing only 3 percent, while Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders of Vermont has dipped to an almost 85 percent absence rate in the final stages of his campaign. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who hung on the longest in the Republican race, missed 24 percent of Senate votes during his campaign while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina missed 42 percent.
The rates were even higher in 2008, which Rubio’s campaign was quick to point out, calling out Senator Reid for not having made a similar criticism of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton’s voting records during that election.
In 2008, Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain missed 68 percent of votes held, Senator Obama of Illinois missed 65 percent, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton missed 53 percent.
“Senators always run for president, and the overwhelming number of them don’t become president. A lot of them come back [to the Senate] and are effective,” says Ira Shapiro, who spent 40 years in senior staff positions in the Senate and authored the book “The Last Great Senate.”
“Take Ted Kennedy,” he adds. “He ran for president, missed votes, and came back to be one of the best senators of all time. It all depends on the individual circumstance.”
Why Rubio's absence may not hurt him
Rubio’s absenteeism may not play a significant factor in the Florida race for reelection, especially since his main Democratic rival, Patrick Murphy, came under fire this week for dramatically inflating his résumé. And with Congress’s approval rating down at 16 percent, Rubio may have intentionally wanted to distance himself from the Senate.
Still, some voters are upset with his track record.
“Not voting is a habit of his,” says Sean Thompson, an insurance claim representative from Tampa, Fla. who didn’t vote for Rubio in the presidential primary and doesn’t plan to vote for him this fall either. “He was running a campaign, but ignoring what we’re paying him to do. It shows where his priorities are.”
Experts say it is Rubio’s poor voting record before he even hit the campaign trail, as well as the derogatory comments he made about the Senate while in the race, that could hurt his campaign the most. From July through September of 2012, for example, Rubio missed over 28 percent of votes compared to the average senator’s 1 percent absence rate.
When he was running for president he said, “It’s frustrating to watch, day after day, nothing happening” and criticized those who spent decades in Congress as out of touch.
In fact, it was Senator Reid who complained last month that in 2016 the Senate was scheduled to work the fewest days it had worked in 60 years.