Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Why Marco Rubio is like the Liberal Democrats

Nate Silver has written a very interesting comment on the problems faced by American Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio on the FiveThirtyEight site. It made me think about the similarities between the senator and the Lib Dems. I’m not talking about policies, but in terms of his positioning and campaign trajectory, Rubio shares a lot with the Liberal Democrats. I’ve blatantly ripped off some of Silver’s lines - for which apologies and thanks are due. 

Everybody's second choice

Rubio went through the first batch of primaries and caucuses seemingly coming second everywhere and never managing to win anything. Now things have moved on slightly and he has slipped back in general but is managing to eke out wins in the far flung corners of Minnesota and Puerto Rico. No one seemed to have anything bad to say about Rubio, but no one was overly enthused by him either. 

No strong base

This led to similarity number two. He has a very low base, but potentially huge possibilities. There are tons of people who say they might vote for Rubio, but very few who are ten out of ten die-hard supporters. It is perhaps the opposite to Donald Trump (who looks like UKIP in this respect) who has a very high floor but very low ceiling.

Remember this Lib Dem election poster?

It proved impossible to turn into reality (even with Clegg-mania) because being prepared to consider voting for a party is not the same as doing so.

In the past, it was the moan of the Liberal Democrats that the party never really had any safe seats. At every election we had to fight like crazy everywhere we wanted to win rather than being able to focus on marginals. In 2015, in the face of terrible polling numbers nationally, the message went out from LDHQ that the party was doing ok in held seats. I don’t know the truth of what was actually happening with internal polls, but the results showed that we weren’t doing ok. It would appear that, for whatever reason, we had not established the secure base which would allow us to hold on to a core number of seats.

And just as public affection can be quite fickle, so too can establishment support. Marco Rubio suddenly became the object of GOP affection when Jeb(!) Bush withdrew from the contest. But what the establishment giveth, so they can take away too. In the UK we have seen the Lib Dems win some backing from the media and suchlike only to see that support disappear pretty quickly too. That matters because it means a lot of wasted time and money if you are trying to play to the establishment rather than the voters. 

Media expectations 


 Third, as a relative unknown, Rubio rose and fell on the basis of his appearance in the media. The public didn’t know much about the freshman senator from Florida and was largely impressed by his energy and enthusiasm. But when he failed to live up to (artificially) high expectations in a later debate, his stock crashed back to earth. That’s similar to what happened to Nick Clegg in 2010 (albeit I think this is unfair on Clegg who had unreasonably high expectations put on him in the third debate). But it is also the problem the party faced in every general election as broadcast rules meant that the party was introduced to voters in a way they had perhaps not seen before. Poll ratings rose only to plateau and then fall as decision time came nearer. 

An image problem? 

The final similarity is that the image the public has of Rubio is perhaps not what he actually is. In a race with so many bampot fundamentalists, Rubio was seen as one of those in the establishment lane. As Nate Silver points out, his best results have come in heavily Democratic areas and Rubio became the favourite of the GOP establishment for a time. But is that where is really is politically? He came up through the Tea Party and his policies are all pretty conservative. He isn’t as right wing as Ted Cruz, but virtually no one is (Cruz is really scarily right wing). And so Rubio got pegged as a moderate. In the case of the Lib Dems, the party has been seen by the public as centre-right, based on supporting a Conservative minority as part of the coalition from 2010 to 2015 (for all that there was no other real option). And yet, if you believe such labels, the heart of the party is probably to the left of centre. 

All things to all people?

Once a candidate or party accepts that the public sees you as something other than what you really are, the danger is that you become happy to try to be all things to all people. Just as Rubio has pivoted to both left and right in his primary campaign, the Lib Dems are often afraid to disagree with people, leading to seemingly contradictory positions in different areas.

Rubio is pinning all his hopes on his home state of Florida which votes next Tuesday. Losing would be curtains for him. The Lib Dems pinned all their hopes on holding Eastleigh in the by election following the resignation of Chris Huhne. Losing would have been disastrous, but they won. The problem for Rubio after a Florida victory is the same as for the Lib Dems after Eastleigh. Now what?

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