Marco Rubio was never a good fit for the Republican primary

Marco Rubio couldn't make inroads because he represented voters that establishment Republicans want, not the ones they have. 

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio announces the suspension of his presidential campaign during a rally in Miami Tuesday.

“Vote for Marco Rubio – He appeals to people who aren’t you!”

No, the Florida senator never used that slogan, but it was an implicit message of his now-suspended presidential campaign. Therein lay a problem.

From the standpoint of election strategy, the case for Senator Rubio seemed obvious: His background and message would attract Hispanic voters who do not ordinarily vote Republican in general elections. Trouble is, rank-and-file primary voters don’t think much about election strategy. They want to know how a candidate relates to them, not what he or she is going to do for groups of people they don’t even know.

Rubio actually did have fairly detailed policy proposals to help working Americans, and many observers (including yours truly) thought that his ideas would help him build support among GOP voters. It turned out, however, that his agenda lacked emotional resonance. A “partially refundable Child Tax Credit of up to $2,500 per child” may make good policy sense, but it does not make a great applause line. 

A comparison with George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign is instructive. Like Rubio, Bush seemed attractive to GOP strategists because he had the potential to win over Hispanic voters. As governor of Texas, he had worked hard to win Hispanic support and had made an effort to communicate in Spanish (though his command of the language was limited). His “compassionate conservatism” agenda held out the promise of bridging ideological divides, thus enabling the party to grow beyond a right-wing corridor.

Far more important to his nomination campaign was his ability to position himself among Republican voters. He became a favorite of Evangelicals by talking about faith-based initiatives and highlighting the role of religion in his life. At a 1999 debate in Iowa, the moderator asked candidates to name the political thinker or philosopher who had most strongly influenced them. Governor Bush answered: “Christ, because he changed my heart.”

The response – which seemed peculiar to secular observers – touched Evangelicals, who saw Bush as a kindred spirit. Rubio never managed to find a similar moment of connection. Though he frequently mentioned that his father was a bartender and his mother was a maid, a lot of Republicans did not see themselves in the experiences of Cuban immigrants.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush benefited from the limited reach of his rivals. Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes vied with Bush for the evangelical vote, but they lacked the resources and stature to make much headway. As in 2016, there was a wealthy outsider in the mix. The well-mannered Steve Forbes proved to be the opposite of a rabble-rousing demagogue, and won no primaries. Sen. John McCain planted himself on the more moderate side of the spectrum, enabling Bush to consolidate conservative support.

Rubio, by contrast, had to deal with much tougher opposition, and needed to carve out a unique identity.  As a base-broadening Hispanic, he did so in a way – but too many of his would-be constituents were people who do not vote in Republican primaries.

Mr. Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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