Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who have struggled to break through in the Republican presidential election, will definitely be on the Florida ballot come March 15.
But that’s just because the ballots are already done.
Whether either of them will actually still be in the race is a different story. How it turns out largely depends on five words: Iowa. New Hampshire. South Carolina.
Bush and Rubio need to “do well” in those first three voting states, their campaigns say. What that means, exactly, is a little like that famous quote about pornography: You know it when you see it.
All three states will be done with their elections in the next month.
Rubio, who has never been the GOP front-runner, needs to prove only that he can win silver or bronze to remain eligible to compete for gold. Bush, who entered the race as the prohibitive favorite, could see it all come to an end with a poor finish in New Hampshire.
That’s not how the two men like to put it.
“We are trying to bring as many people as possible onto our team, and I feel very good about the momentum we have in Iowa and even here in New Hampshire,” Rubio told reporters Thursday.
“We’ve not identified any state that is a must-win or a must-place,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell told the Miami Herald, emphasizing that the campaign’s national organization will become a bigger asset as the long primary season grinds along.
Both Bush and Rubio have prepared for an extended contest leading to the GOP’s July nominating convention in Cleveland. But early results will determine whether either of them can build all-important political momentum to carry them from February into March — or whether poor showings will force them out altogether.
Here’s how the next month could play out.
The leaderboard belongs to celebrity businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa, which holds its caucuses Feb. 1. Rubio is in a respectable third place in most polls. Bush is in fifth, behind retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Polls reflect a snapshot of a moment in time, rather than a forecast, so there’s an outside chance someone other than Cruz or Trump could win, as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did after a last-minute surge in 2012. But neither Rubio nor Bush is banking on that, not with Iowa’s socially conservative electorate — an unnatural fit for either Floridian.
Instead, their goal is to become the choice for mainstream Republicans to coalesce around as an alternative to Trump and Cruz. A third-place finish would let Rubio make that case. A better-than-expected finish for Bush — for example, fourth or fifth place, not too removed from Rubio — would keep Bush in that establishment GOP conversation.
The stakes will be much higher Feb. 9 in New Hampshire.
Polls show Bush and Rubio stuck in a five-way bottleneck — with Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — behind Trump. Cruz wants to make it a two-man race between himself and Trump. The others want to avoid precisely that scenario.
New Hampshire tends to vote differently than Iowa because it has an open primary that lets independents moderate the vote. That’s why a mainstream GOP pick could get a big boost from the Granite State. (It’s also why New Hampshire is a particularly difficult place to poll.)
Whoever comes out on top among Rubio, Kasich, Christie and Bush will argue he is the party’s best long-term bet against Trump and Cruz. Christie and Kasich have no other path forward because they’ve staked their entire campaigns on New Hampshire.
That’s not true of Rubio and Bush, whose campaigns are built to withstand more primaries. Rubio would jump into the top tier with Trump and Cruz if he finishes right behind them in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
But if Bush, who has devoted much time to New Hampshire, doesn’t finish ahead of the others, that would raise serious questions from financial donors about his ability to remain in the race.
“They’ve made a case that they have the resources and organization to make a strong finish in New Hampshire,” Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who hasn’t backed a candidate, said about the Bush campaign. “Anything below meeting expectations could present them a problem as they begin to make their case for later on.”
Trump leads polls in South Carolina, where Republicans vote Feb. 20. Trailing him are Cruz and Rubio, though one recent survey showed Bush in third after former rival and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed him.
The “first in the South” primary has an establishment-friendly electorate. The state has been good to the Bush family: George H.W. Bush won it in 1988 (after placing third in Iowa and winning New Hampshire), and George W. Bush won it in 2000 (after winning Iowa and placing second in New Hampshire).
“I’m sure my brother is going to be campaigning by my side,” Bush said in New Hampshire on Thursday.
South Carolina, however, is also home to top Rubio campaign strategists: His campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, is a longtime political hand in the state’s capital, Columbia, and the head of Rubio’s supportive Conservative Solutions super PAC, Warren Tompkins, is also a Palmetto State campaign veteran.
Rubio pushed back at a recent National Review report that Rubio might shoot for third place in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and first in South Carolina. No campaign likes to set expectations for first place if it’s unsure it can meet them.
But Rubio has shifted advertising resources to South Carolina, aware that an outright win there would set him up well for the fourth state, in which he is perhaps better positioned than anyone else: Nevada. (Rubio lived in Las Vegas for a few years growing up.)
There is precedent for a candidate winning South Carolina after having lost both Iowa and New Hampshire: Newt Gingrich did it in 2012. But he didn’t become the nominee, and no modern Republican candidate (since 1972) has won the nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire. Only one Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton, has done so; the unusually large GOP field gives contenders not named Cruz or Trump hope that it could happen again.
So what do all those scenarios boil down to? Rubio and Bush need their immediate competitors — their establishment rivals, including each other — to exit the race as quickly as possible so they can stay in it. Front-runners Trump and Cruz will try to muscle everyone else out of contention to turn the race into a two-man contest.
Cruz is already looking to push Rubio out.
Cruz insisted to reporters in New Hampshire on Wednesday that the “Washington establishment” has concluded Rubio can’t win — and is “abandoning” him for Trump as the lesser of two evils before voting even begins.
“Well, then why is Ted Cruz spending so much money attacking me?” Rubio retorted the next day.
Because voting is about a week away. And that’s when the real race starts.
Miami Herald Political Writer Patricia Mazzei heads to Iowa and New Hampshire for the primaries. Email her your thoughts, and follow her on Twitter at @PatriciaMazzei