A new CNN poll out today shows a sudden rise for Carly Fiorina and at least some drop in support for Donald Trump. But I would argue that the real news from the poll is tied to Marco Rubio and to a lesser degree to the abysmal showing of Scott Walker who has been falling fast and now comes in at under 1%.
The best way to look at the current, unstructured campaign isn’t who’s up or down at a given moment but which of the plausible national candidates are succeeding or failing at putting together viable national coalitional support and a viable campaign. To me the viable national candidates in the race are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. By viable I mean a mix of popular support, the kind of resume that lands you a presidential nomination, elite support, political views that can weather a national election, fundraising ability, etc.
Had history unfolded differently one could easily imagine Chris Christie or Bobby Jindal fitting into this category. But it just didn’t happen that way. And I suspect very few observers imagine either now having any real shot. In a different Republican party John Kasich might be in contention. But we have this Republican party and in any case GOP elites appear to see him as untrustworthy. Despite current poll support neither Trump nor Fiorina nor Carson fits into this category either. And that leaves us with Bush, Rubio and Walker.
Let’s start with Bush. He’s at 9% in this poll. So no meaningful difference from Rubio. But this has to be seen in the context of Jeb’s long slow fall into second or even third tier status. On the campaign trail and in debates he looks effete and purposeless, never more so than in the second GOP debate. He just has the look of a loser after the campaign so far and he’s now reduced to a nonsensical and set-defeating back and forth about how good a president his brother was. It was always going to be difficult for anyone to run for president when two other members of the same immediate family had also served as the two most recent Republican presidents. That’s all the more so since his brother left office deeply unpopular and largely remains so. Money and name recognition looked more important and enough to compensate. But apparently not.
With Bush my argument is the most subjective. His support hasn’t collapsed. He has tons of money. And he’s got the resume. Numerically speaking there have been far more impressive comebacks. But to me at least he just looks too weak and damaged to win. I’m not saying it can’t happen. It just seems less and less likely.
Now to Walker.
On paper, He makes much more sense. But I think the numbers tell a close to conclusive story. In a period of a couple months he’s gone from a near poll leader to an almost total lack of support. Just to drive home the point, he failed to get to 1/2 of one percentage point in this new CNN poll. It’s the worst yet but in line with the trajectory of recent polls. At least you can say for Walker that he seems to have earned it. He’s stumbled numerous times since he really got on the national stage – basically since the weeks just before he got into the race. And his two debate performances have been weak or invisible. Wisconsin has a unique, often left-leaning but very polarized and contentious politics. Walker’s proven a master at operating and succeeding in that ecosystem with brutally fought and narrow victories – notably, in off year elections. But it’s a unique place. And it simply has not translated.
And that leads us to and leaves us with Marco Rubio. I use those words advisedly since I’ve never seen Rubio as a very strong candidate. He seems to lack the skills to make it in a national campaign. And his failure with immigration reform – both in choosing it as his signature issue and in fumbling it after he did – is telling on a number of levels. But he’s made few mistakes in this campaign and he seems to be slowing edging up in the polls. Aggressive unilateralism is also key to support in the DC-centric GOP. He’s done nothing that makes him seem stupid or weak like the other two. Put simply, he remains viable and undamaged, even though his campaign to date has been undistinguished.
I have no doubt that the folks who are running Rubio’s campaign would use different adjectives. They’d have a more positive gloss. But I strongly suspect they see it in the same basic terms. He’s far from on fire. But he’s undamaged while his real opponents are either imploding or fizzling. The visuals and numbers show little reason for optimism. But I suspect they believe the structural logic of the contest is encouraging for Rubio and that time is on his side.