Can Rubio Win Even If He Loses?

Rubio does not fit the typical Republican presidential candidate demographic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Can a candidate win the Republican presidential nomination without winning one of the first three contests – Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina? We may just find out this year.  

History, of course, has already provided something of an answer. Democrat Bill Clinton didn’t win a contest in 1992 until March 3rd in the Georgia primary. He had already "lost" the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, the Maine caucuses and the South Dakota primary. (Fortunately for Clinton, no one in the field won more than one of the first four contests, and his solid second-place finish in the Granite State was regarded as a  victory of sorts.)  

While Clinton finally won in Georgia, there were six other contests that day that the then-Arkansas governor did not win. Yet, that did not stop him from being nominated.  

In 1972, George McGovern won the Democratic nomination but did not finish first in a primary or caucus until April 4, when he won in Wisconsin. That was about six weeks after the Iowa caucuses, just under a month after New Hampshire and shortly after weak finishes in Florida and Illinois.  

No Republican has been nominated for president since 1976 without winning either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.  

This cycle, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may need to survive a series of early losses before he can emerge as a frontrunner for his party’s nomination. While he is a favorite of pragmatic conservatives, Rubio has yet to consolidate support from the establishment, and some GOP strategists are scratching their heads over his strategy, which they regard as risky.  

Critics equate Rubio’s general approach to the nomination calendar – which downplays the Florida senator’s need to “win” a February contest as long as he runs “competitively” – to the strategy employed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2008.  

Giuliani ignored most of the early contests (playing only half-heartedly in New Hampshire) and instead placed a huge bet on Florida’s January 29th primary, which he hoped would jump-start his campaign and create momentum going into the February 5th Super Tuesday contests, which included New York, California, New Jersey and more than a dozen other contests.  

Those who wonder about Rubio’s approach call it a passive strategy that relies on other candidates losing rather than on Rubio winning, and they argue that a series of defeats could well put Rubio in a hole from which he cannot escape.  

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appear to be putting all of their chips on performing well in New Hampshire, and if one or more of them does surprisingly well, that certainly could change the conventional wisdom about the GOP “finalists” and Rubio’s prospects.  

Rubio supporters dismiss the Giuliani comparison, noting that while the Florida senator isn’t going all-in on one of the first three contests, his campaign (and his super PAC) is playing heavily in all of the February primaries and caucuses.  

They argue that Giuliani adopted his strategy because, as the pro-choice, moderate, former mayor of New York City, he could not compete in the early states without being defined as the moderate that he was. His Florida strategy followed from his poor positioning in the party and limited strategic options.  

Rubio, on the other hand, is well-liked, well-funded and well-positioned, strategically, and he has the ability to play in many of the GOP “lanes.” And, although Rubio is competing in all of the early contests, he has the luxury of not having to finish first in any of them. He merely needs to “do well.”  

What is “doing well” for Rubio? Obviously, he hopes to “win” the establishment primary in both Iowa and the Granite State, finishing ahead of Christie, Kasich and Bush. That would establish him as the consensus pragmatic conservative in the race (depending, of course, not only on the order of finish but the percentages that each candidate receives).  

But even if that doesn’t happen, the Florida senator needs only to stay in the hunt for the nomination..  

Giuliani, on the other hand, never had a decent showing. He finished far back in the 2008 Michigan and South Carolina primaries, drawing less than 3 percent of the vote in each, and in the Nevada caucuses, drawing 4.3 percent of the vote. Those results followed the former mayor’s sixth-place showing in Iowa and his distant fourth place finish in New Hampshire.  

Making matters worse for Giuliani was that Arizona Sen. John McCain, a pragmatist, won both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and finished second in Michigan. After the first five contests, Giuliani had one delegate to McCain’s 39 delegates.  

Because of that, pragmatic Republicans in Florida in 2008 didn’t need an alternative when their primary rolled around. McCain had established himself as the favorite. Giuliani became an after-thought, finishing a distant third in Florida, with 14.7 percent of the vote, far behind McCain’s 36 percent and Romney’s 31 percent.  

This year, given the field, it would be a much greater gamble for Rubio to go all-in on one early contest, say New Hampshire, than it would to adopt the approach he has chosen.  

None of this means that his approach is without risk. If Rubio fares as poorly in this year’s earliest contests as Giuliani did in 2008, then the Florida senator will never get to his home state’s March 15 primary. And if another pragmatic candidate wins two or three of the early contests – or even runs well ahead of Rubio – that too would create massive problems for the senator.  

Polling shows Rubio broadly acceptable within the GOP and a formidable general election nominee . Given that, and considering the size and make-up of the field, his caucus and primary calendar strategy seems reasonable.  

Of course, that certainly does not assure him of being in his party’s “finals,” or of convincing a majority of GOP delegates in Cleveland that he is the man to take on Hillary Clinton. But at the very least, it means he is not recycling Giuliani’s failed strategy.

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