It was supposed to be Marco Rubio. That refrain could be true for Tuesday, and for the entire election cycle. Back in early 2015, the freshman senator from Florida seemed like just the sort of candidate Republicans wanted for their next shot at the White House. A young, smart, good-looking Hispanic senator who talked about hopes and dreams for America, he checked off all the boxes outlined in the post-2012 GOP autopsy report.
But instead, this year has been dominated by Donald Trump. The New York businessman tapped into the electorate’s anger in a way no one expected, promising them he wouldn’t touch Social Security, he would get their jobs back from China and oppose trade deals and, most importantly, that he would be far and away the toughest candidate on tackling illegal immigration. His nativist rhetoric and use of his supporters’ anger eclipsed anything Rubio or other candidates said, and his appeal triumphed again Tuesday night, when he won Florida within minutes of the polls closing.
Rubio, on the other hand, consistently underperformed throughout the campaign, even after the other main contenders for GOP establishment support — Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush — exited the race in embarrassing defeats. Rubio himself suspended his campaign Tuesday night after giving a sweeping speech that slammed establishment Republicans, praised his family's blue-collar roots and warned about the dangers of Trump's rise.
"While it is not God's plan that I be president in 2016, or maybe ever," Rubio said, "I ask the American people, do not give into the fear. Do not give into the frustration."
Oh my god. "Goodbye Rubio Tuesday" is trending.
— The Soap™ (@SoapView) March 16, 2016
That the much-touted Rubio is out while Ohio Gov. John Kasich — predicted to be a strong challenger by absolutely nobody — is still in, demonstrates what a bizarre election cycle this has been. It also casts an unforgiving light on what a weak candidate the Florida senator was, contrary to expectations just months ago. While some of Rubio’s failure can be explained by the unpredictable rise of Trump, the Florida senator also made a number of rookie mistakes.
Here are the top missteps that hurt Rubio’s presidential bid:
1. He ran a national campaign instead of focusing on winning early states
From the beginning, many political analysts questioned the Rubio campaign’s strategy of doing some campaigning everywhere instead of focusing on winning at least one early state. His team initially said it hoped he could finish in the top three in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and then start winning in March. But no Republican in modern history has won the presidential nomination without winning one of the first three states, and Rubio won't be the first to break that trend.
2. His team lacked ground game
While Rubio spent plenty of time campaigning in primary states, there were frequent reports that his ground game was less-than-stellar. At first, he relied on TV-ready rallies and interviews on cable news rather than retail politics. Even as the primary season continued, rivals like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz focused more on the details of targeting voters and building enthusiasm in specific areas. And in Florida, Rubio’s home state, he started opening offices only this month, while the Trump campaign had been there since the fall.
3. His robotic debate performances
Rubio was considered a strong public speaker and a sharp debater, but he stumbled this year. After a disastrous New Hampshire debate when Christie drew attention to Rubio's scripted, repetitive responses and apparent inability to think on his feet, the Florida senator's support cratered. The internet exploded with “Robot Rubio” memes. The idea not only hurt him in the Granite State, but has haunted him since, even as he managed to return to a strong debate style after Christie dropped out.
4. He tried to imitate Trump’s insults
At the height of his desperation, Rubio pivoted from his usually cheery style of campaigning to take on Trump at his own game — namely the crude insults that the GOP front-runner is known for. Rubio’s most memorable line came when he joked about the size of Trump’s hands, implying that they might hint at the size of his rival’s genitalia.
“He is taller than me; he's like 6' 2", which is why I don't understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5' 2",” Rubio told a crowd in Virginia. “Have you seen his hands? And you know what they say about men with small hands —”
The crowd erupted, and Rubio finished: “You can't trust them.”
Trump went on to defend the size of his hands and his privates at a Republican debate, and many criticized Rubio for resorting to such childishness and vulgarity. Recently, the Florida senator said his “kids were embarrassed” by his behavior. And though he moved away from this tactic, it only fed the perception that Rubio was light on substance and lacked the gravitas expected in a president.
5. He was too thirsty
Who can forget Rubio’s need for water? The joke began when he gave the official Republican response to President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address. The Florida senator paused to take a drink of water from a plastic water bottle, and his thirst sparked memes on Twitter and jokes on news programs and Saturday Night Live.
The topic came back early in his campaign, as the candidate frequently had a cup of water waiting on lecterns while he spoke at rallies and debates, and was often seen slurping from a water bottle on the campaign trail. While this wasn’t one of his biggest problems, it did provide fodder for Trump to criticize him, and added to the impression of Rubio as a sweaty, nervous candidate. Never a good look for someone running to lead the country.
Marco Rubio couldn't even respond properly to President Obama's State of the Union Speech without pouring sweat & chugging water. He choked!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2015
6. The “Gang of Eight” bill
Perhaps his “original sin,” Rubio was never able to escape his support for the bipartisan immigration reform legislation that he dumped once he realized Republicans hated it. In an election cycle where immigration is one of the most important flashpoints, any leniency on granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants was not tolerated by hardline GOP voters.
Rubio’s current position moved so far to the right, he said his own parents would probably not qualify to stay if they came to the U.S. under his plan, but that did not assuaged concerns about his past. In Florida, which voted Tuesday, a Washington Post-Univision poll from earlier this month found that voters thought Trump would do a better job than Rubio on handling immigration, as well as other issues like the economy and terrorism.
7. He skipped too many Senate votes
The other vulnerable point in Rubio’s record was the high number of absences during his time in the Senate. Trump frequently attacked Rubio on this issue, saying the Florida senator has the “No. 1 absentee record” in the Senate — and he’s right. Over the past year, Rubio has missed the most votes of any U.S. senator, giving him an absentee rate of 41 percent.
When Bush was still in the race, he even called out his former protege at a GOP debate, telling Rubio, “You should be showing up to work.”
Rubio failed to defend his absences in a way that satisfied voters, and now that his presidential bid is coming to an end, he will not be returning to the Senate after this year either. In his speech after the Florida loss, he said he looked forward to finding out what his future held. His presidential campaign has raised his profile but not necessarily improved his future political prospects.