Marco Rubio began 2013 in the worst of positions: On top in the polls. By year’s end, the rising Republican star had fallen back to earth.
In some ways, Rubio’s rise and fall are the result of an intangible gravity-like force in politics: What goes up must come down.
But Rubio’s wounds were as much self-inflicted as they were inflicted upon him by a media culture puzzled at the Rubio Rorschach. At the beginning of the year, the freshman from West Miami was like an undefined inkblot to the public, national reporters, bloggers and activists (especially on the far right).
Many projected what they wanted to see. And when the politician didn’t match their bias, he paid the price.
Nowhere was that clearer than with immigration reform, which Rubio championed to his short-term detriment.
“Florida Sen. Marco Rubio lost 12 percentage points in 12 months, according to an analysis of national Republican primary polling in 2013,” The Run 2016, a new blog covering the not-so-far-off presidential race, wrote on Dec. 21.
Rubio started the year pulling an average of 20 percent of the theoretical GOP vote; he ended it at 7.6 percent.
“What a difference a year makes — especially when you spend the first portion of it working on a policy at odds with your base,” The Run wrote, noting Rubio’s collapse was the largest drop of any potential Republican contender.
The new top GOP star nationally: New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who ticked up almost 5 points to just over 17 percent, The Run reported. Texas senator Ted Cruz isn’t far behind.
But Rubio’s situation in his home state, where he’s best known, is another story.
In Quinnipiac University’s most recent Florida poll, in late November, Rubio’s job-approval rating was 84 percent among Republicans, with 11 percent disapproving. Independents were essentially evenly split: 44-45 percent. Democrats disliked him the most: 21-62 percent.
Add it all together, and Rubio’s job overall approval-disapproval is 48-39 percent, an index of +9. Compare that to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson: an index of +6. Or President Obama: -17.
Rubio started the year in better shape. His job-approval index in Florida was +22 in December and his nationwide favorability index was +12 in January, according to separate polls from Quinnipiac (mentioned throughout the column because it polls Florida so frequently with the same methodology).
And it’s still not all rosy for Rubio.
Quinnipiac has consistently found Hillary Clinton would soundly beat him in a head-to-head presidential race in Florida (former Gov. Jeb Bush comes closest, trailing her by just 2 points). And by an 8-point margin, more Florida voters are disinclined to believe Rubio would make a good president.
At a certain point, Rubio will have to decide whether to run for reelection or for president or vice president in 2016.
Even in Florida, immigration has haunted Rubio.
A June Quinnipiac poll showed only 33 percent backed Rubio’s bipartisan immigration-reform efforts, while 41 percent disapproved. And Democrats were the most disapproving of all — even though Rubio was compromising with their party.
Just as notable: Rubio found the strongest support from Republicans, who were the most angry with him for compromising and flip-flopping.
Rubio campaigned in 2010 as an immigration hardliner and generally called a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants “amnesty.” But he ended up in 2013 backing a pathway to citizenship and arguing it wasn’t amnesty (because it was a tough path, required ID checks and fines, etc.).
That was a clear reversal. Many of the other so-called flip-flops really weren’t. They were more like zig-zags.
As the Hispanic immigration pitchman for Republicans, Rubio outlined many of his positions in conservative media at the beginning of the year. By the summer, nevertheless, he was taking fire for misleading conservatives, even though his positions had remained about the same.
Intriguingly, in Florida, his Republican job-approval numbers stayed strong. And his support among independents — the swing voters of the swing state — increased though the summer.
But Rubio then started to slip among independents and even further among Democrats. At the same time, he was making sure to placate angry conservatives.
When Rubio started endorsing a series of piecemeal immigration-reform bills in the House (instead of one mammoth immigration bill, as passed the Senate), he was invariably accused of flip-flopping.
Rubio’s spokesman explained the senator wasn’t reversing himself. After all, he originally supported a series of piecemeal bills but gave up the demand in order to back the Democratic Senate’s compromise language.
But House Republicans, who killed immigration reform for 2013, wanted piecemeal bills.
“At this point, the most realistic way to make progress on immigration would be through a series of individual bills,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in an email to the conservative Breitbart website in October.
Though true, the statement came too late for some. The narrative was already set: Rubio was flip-flopping.
Earlier in the year, when Rubio signaled he wanted to sign on to an abortion bill, it appeared he was trying to shore up his Republican base. There was some truth there, but little mention of the fact that he backed similar legislation before and was long a darling of anti-abortion groups.
And when Rubio backed an effort that led to a partial government shutdown over Obamacare, he was accused of trying to be like Ted Cruz. So what that he campaigned against Obamacare and, early on, said he’d oppose temporary budget deals?
But it’s not as if Rubio is blameless. He sometimes stakes out nuanced positions but presents himself as a straight talker. And, when it came to the shutdown, he implausibly tried to lay most of the blame at the feet of Democrats, even though Republicans like him repeatedly voted against so-called “clean” budget bills to keep the government open.
Rubio’s partisanship was documented early on by a few national outlets.
The National Journal and the Washington Post in February noted Rubio’s conservative voting record, opposing: the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy reconstruction spending, a so-called “fiscal cliff” deal and a temporary debt-ceiling delay. Rubio also disfavors hiking the mandatory minimum wage. There’s a reason he has had top conservative ratings from the American Conservative Union and Heritage Action.
But somehow, many got the idea Rubio was some sort of centrist because of immigration reform.
And once it was time to vote for a budget deal at year’s end, Rubio predictably voted no.
Well, it wasn’t predictable to CBS’ Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell, who noted on Dec. 13 that House budget chief Paul Ryan (who beat out Rubio to be Mitt Romney’s running mate last year) had essentially accused Rubio of not reading the budget bill before bashing it.
“I’ve worked on projects before that involved Democrats and I think compromise is a good thing, but compromise also has to be a solution,” Rubio said. “Compromise just for the sake of compromise, so we can feel good about each other, I don’t think is progress for the country.”
O’Donnell: “That’s really what you think?”
Rubio: “For the sake of compromise that doesn’t solve problems? Just for the sake of it? Yeah, that’s not a good thing for the country. We have a very serious problem in this country — I’m surprised that you’re surprised by my answer.”
Rubio’s right. She shouldn’t be surprised.
By now, the media should know. The left should know. The right should know. The center should know. Rubio is a pretty reliable conservative vote.
So the major question about Rubio going forward: What does he do now that he’s no longer a Rorschach test?