The national news media have identified an exciting new frontrunner in the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination. The latest polls have him at around third or fourth place.
Marco Rubio's transformation this month into popular fuss-object for the cable news know-it-alls and Beltway oddsmakers has been difficult to miss. At NBC News, he is "the new favorite to win the GOP nomination." At U.S. News, he has "gain[ed] the hot hand." And in the New York Times op-ed pages he is "the real frontrunner."
Ross Douthat, the conservative Times columnist who bestowed this latest honor upon Rubio, ably summed up the consensus case for the candidate's eventual nomination, which involves methodically ruling out the viability of all other contenders:
No major party has ever nominated a figure like Trump or Carson, and I don’t believe that the 2016 G.O.P. will be the first. Rand Paul’s libertarian moment came and went, Carly Fiorina seems like she’s running for a cabinet slot, John Kasich is too moderate (and ornery about it), Chris Christie has never recovered from the traffic cones. Scott Walker and Rick Perry are gone. Ted Cruz has the base’s love, but far too many leading party actors hate him...
That leaves Jeb! and Marco Rubio. But Jeb’s campaign has been one long flail. His favorable ratings are terrible, he and Trump topped a recent poll of Iowans that asked which candidate should drop out expeditiously...
So that leaves Rubio. And unlike all the rest, it’s surpassingly easy to imagine the Florida senator as the nominee. He sits close to the party’s center ideologically, and his favorable ratings with Republicans are consistently strong. He’s an effective debater with a great personal story and an appealing style, and a more impressive policy portfolio than most of his rivals. He scares Democrats in the general election, and strikes the most politically-useful contrasts with She Who Has Always Been Inevitable.
"The betting markets have him as the most likely nominee, and — since this is quadrennial prediction time — I’ll say that I agree," Douthat concludes, effectively speaking on behalf of his colleagues in the political press. "I think he’s the real front-runner, and I predict that he will win."
But, of course, Rubio is not actually the Republican frontrunner in any statistical sense. The RealClearPolitics average of 2016 polls has him in third place, at 9.2%. The Huffington Post poll tracker has him in fourth, with 6.7%. Perhaps most strikingly, Rubio has never topped the national polls — at least not since he became a candidate. The last time he led the 2016 primary field was two years and four months ago, in June 2013, when the polls were entirely hypothetical.
This has not stopped the political press over the years from hyping Rubio's presidential prospects at every chance possible, and generally gushing about his political talents.
When Time magazine put the young, dynamic, Cuban-American senator on its cover in early 2013 and declared him "The Republican Savior," he was leading in a handful of premature polls — just ahead of the other two top-tier contenders at the time, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee. But then came Rubio's ill-fated foray into the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill, and his subsequent collapse of support among conservatives. By the end of June, Rubio had tumbled to third place (behind a surging Rand Paul), and the decline continued all year, according to HuffPost Pollster.
The Republican savior fallen from grace. The tea party saint now shunned by believers. The stories wrote themselves — and once they had, in fact, all been written, reporters went searching for new Rubio angles.
In March 2014, some in the media — including me — spotted glimmers of a comeback narrative after one of Rubio's speeches went semi-viral on the right. BuzzFeed News published a tick-tock of the game-changing performance: "Behind The Speech That Launched Marco Rubio's Comeback."Townhall's Conn Carroll pronounced his verdict: "Rubio is the 2016 frontrunner again."
Rubio rode this new wave of media excitement from sixth place to seventh in the national polls.
By November 2014, the prospective presidential candidate was registering just over 4% support, nationally. That month a political analyst declared him the leading contender for the nomination. Business Insider promptly splashed the prediction across its homepage.
This news cycle repeated itself last spring, when Rubio got a bounce from a widely covered campaign kickoff speech that propelled him (briefly) to second place in the polls; and it started again earlier this month. But the candidate has yet to live up to the great expectations of the opinion-makers.
What pundits and reporters really mean when they call Rubio the "frontrunner" is simply that he is the best candidate in the race: the savviest politician, the most impressive performer. Rubio is the Republican who makes the most sense to the political press — and for a candidate like him that could become a problem.
Chris Christie's coziness in the Morning Joe greenroom compounded conservatives post-2012 wariness of him, and when scandal struck his administration, many in the online right were content to watch him get devoured by the "liberal media" he so adored. Jon Huntsman's 2012 candidacy — already marred by organizational failings and a transparent disdain for the Tea Party — was further hampered by his status as a darling of the media elite (and the perception that he enjoyed posing for that splashy Vogue spread a tad too much).
Both Christie and Huntsman either were or signaled to voters they were much less conservative than Rubio, but the more a candidate is doted on by the news media, the more he opens himself up to suspicion from primary voters — and attacks from opportunistic rivals.
This is a lesson Rubio learned once before during the immigration fight of 2013. His willingness to work on a bipartisan immigration overhaul was already seen as a betrayal of conservative orthodoxy — and when the backlash began, his time spent reveling in the adoration of the press made it all the easier for his right-wing critics to dismiss him as a fraud. In one memorable on-air rant, Glenn Beck labeled him a "piece of garbage" who had let himself be hypnotized by the enticements of the powerful and the glamor of media fame.
“He’s not trying to do the right thing,” Beck said at the time. “He’s falling into the power structure.”