Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks to supporters, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Miami.
Photo by Luis M. Alvarez/AP

Rubio scrambles to adapt to a changing race

Watching a presidential race closely means more than just looking at polls. Survey results offer a big piece of the puzzle, but metrics like endorsements, fundraising, appearances, and perhaps even prediction markets help fill out the picture with even greater clarity.
Ad buys matter just as much. It’s one of those things that candidates and campaign committees can’t bluff: folks can say they’re taking a state seriously, but in the end, they’re either making the investments or they’re not. The proof is in the pudding.
And with this in mind, Politico published a piece overnight that’s raising some eyebrows.
Marco Rubio had long planned an ambitious Iowa advertising assault in the weeks leading up to the caucuses, but his campaign has quietly scaled back its ad buys in the state by more than $860,000, according to a POLITICO analysis of advertising buys.
The change appears due partly to a switch from offense to defense, but it also comes at a time when the Florida senator is focusing his hopes for an early state victory in South Carolina, where his campaign is increasing its advertising buys, according to the analysis, compiled for POLITICO by The Tracking Firm.
Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard pointed to the report as a “big sign” that the Florida senator is facing real “trouble.”
Remember, National Review published a piece the other day saying Rubio’s team hopes to win through a “3-2-1” strategy that involves coming in third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. If that’s true, scaling back ad buys in Iowa and increasing them in South Carolina makes sense – the Florida senator has effectively already locked up a top-three finish in Iowa, but he has a lot more ground to make up in South Carolina.
But this is clearly a plan with risks. Candidates who come up short in Iowa and New Hampshire – finishing outside the top two – tend to lose traction going into the next round of contests. It wasn’t long ago that Rubio believed he could win the Iowa caucuses outright, and now he’s scaling back ad buys and trying to lower expectations.
The senator is still a media darling who enjoys support from much of the Republican establishment, but such a position is not without limits. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin this morning described Rubio as “the consensus front-runner with no consensus.”
Rubio’s whole campaign has been planning for a moment just like this to make that argument. While other candidates rise and fall, he has patiently waited for the day when, faced with the possibility of a divisive nominee like Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, Republicans would flock to a reassuring Rubio and beg: “Save us!”
Except it hasn’t happened. Trump and Cruz are closer to the nomination than ever, but the public conversation among conservative elites is more about which of the two they could begrudgingly tolerate rather than how to rally voters behind Rubio. There’s been a trickle of high-profile endorsements for Rubio, but not a flood even as prominent senators grumble that Cruz would wreck the party in a general election.