With his surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses (23 percent and third place, just behind Trump), Marco Rubio is the flavor of the week in presidential punditry circles. I’ll offer a firmly ambivalent and premature prediction regarding his prospects.
A new post-Iowa (Feb. 2-3) Public Policy Polling survey shows him surging. He rose from 13 to 21 percent among Republicans since PPP’s pre-Christmas poll, while Donald Trump dropped from 34 to 25 percent. (Ted Cruz rose from 18 to 21 percent.) Other national and New Hampshire polls conducted partly or wholly after the Iowa caucuses generally show gains for Marco.
But all that’s not even the best potential news for Rubio. As PPP explains:
Things also bode well for Rubio as the field gets smaller in the coming weeks. In a four candidate field he gets 32% to 31% for Trump, 23% for Cruz, and 8% for Bush. In a three candidate field he gets 34% to 33% for Trump and 25% for Cruz. And in head to heads he leads both Trump (52/40) and Cruz (46/40). As other candidates drop out of the race Rubio is the most likely destination of their supporters.
There’s also election uber-pundit Nate Silver’s observation that, in terms of both electability and ideology:
Rubio fits the bill, perhaps uniquely among the remaining Republican candidates. His image with general election voters is not great, but it’s better than the other leading Republicans. He’s also quite conservative. That’s convenient, because Republican voters are quite conservative also. In fact, Rubio is almost exactly as conservative as the average GOP primary voter.
Of course, Rubio fit that same bill last week as well. But today Rubio has Iowa-fueled momentum.
So that’s why, albeit at this still-early stage, Rubio’s chances have markedly improved practically overnight.
But a lot could well go wrong.
To start with, there are these things called primaries that lie ahead, starting with New Hampshire. And as I pointed out in a pre-Iowa post about Humpty Trumpty’s possible tumble, each result can shift media attention and momentum monumentally.
Plus, for the first time, Rubio confronts the expectations game of having to deliver additional strong results, starting with topping the other three “establishment” candidates (Bush, Kasich and Christie) in New Hampshire.
Finally, there’s a potential dark cloud looming over Rubio’s future, in terms of his past. It includes lingering questions about why Mitt Romney did not pick Marco as his running mate in 2012, despite his electoral appeal as a young, bright, attractive, conservative, Hispanic candidate, from a crucial toss-up state, with an inspiring life story. (Then again, Paul Ryan was hardly a poor choice for Mitt.)
The cloud also includes potential blasts from the past that could bowl him over in 2016. One messy matter getting recent attention involves Rubio using his Florida House of Representatives leadership position to recommend that the state grant a real estate license to his ex-convict (for major cocaine trafficking) brother-in-law, Orlando Cicilia. (The state subsequently did so.) As the The Washington Post reported, a 2002 reference letter from the then majority whip, on official stationery, omitted any mention of Rubio’s family connection to Cicilia.
There are other troubling aspects of the story, as reported by the Post:
Rubio also declined to say whether he or his family received financial assistance from Cicilia, who was convicted in a high-profile 1989 trial of distributing $15 million worth of cocaine. The federal government seized Cicilia’s home; the money has never been found.
To be clear: Rubio, his parents, and his sister (Cicilia’s wife) were not implicated in the drug dealing in any way – he was just a kid and living with his folks in Las Vegas for much of his relative’s coke career. There are no indications that Cicilia returned to a life of crime. And the past can come back to bite any candidate.
To be even clearer: Rubio’s overall family history really is an admirable immigrant success story. This matter could well blow over, so to speak.
Still, like any candidate, Rubio could lose the nomination due to such sins of omission or other missteps blowing up in his face. And he could even end up paying for the sins of someone else’s past.