Rubio as Republican Front-Runner: Five Points to Consider

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Josh, I think there are five significant takeaways regarding Rubio’s new front-runner status from the Quinnipiac poll you recently cited:

  1. The Long Bounce – Rubio benefited greatly from his announcement, a full 10 points from March to April, and mostly at the expense of Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped 7 points in the same time frame. An announced candidate is generally going to get increased media attention and name recognition that translate to some measure of increased support. But there is more to Rubio’s bounce deeper in the data that gives him the potential to build consensus and harden his early support into a solid base for a long run deep into the Primary.
  2. Broad Support – Rubio shows strong support among all Republicans. Rubio’s 16 percent among Tea Party voters nearly matches Walker’s 17 percent, and – surprise – bests Ted Cruz’s 14 percent. And Rubio is the only one of the 14 GOP names with double-digit support among Tea Party, White Evangelical, and the three Conservative categories (very, somewhat, and liberal). He’s also equally strong with men (14%) and women (16%), unlike Walker (15/8), Cruz (11/6), and Bush (11/16).
  3. The Bush Bounce – When voters were asked to rate the Republican field absent Jeb Bush, Rubio not only tied Walker among Tea Party voters, but surged past him in every other category. When asked the same question absent Scott Walker, Rubio once again was the clear front runner with his 20 percent total leaving Bush (13%) and Cruz (10%) well behind.
  4. High Favorability – Using the Frank Cannon metric to evaluate Quinnipiac’s favorability rankings shows Rubio with a net positive favorability equal to that of Mike Huckabee (+55). The upside for Rubio versus a likely Huckabee candidacy is that given Huckabee’s broad name recognition, Rubio has much more room to grow (or room for error) as he introduces his name and ideas to the nation.
  5. The Hillary Factor – Rubio scores best of all Republicans when matched against Hillary Clinton. Scoring this high this early in a potential General Election matchup is just what Rubio wanted: a compare-and-contrast picture with Clinton. It puts wind in the sails of his “Yesterday’s Over” mantra, which was clearly designed to brand Clinton as old and irrelevant to a new generation of voters. And his theme should survive even if Clinton doesn’t. Democrats chose Joe Biden – aged 72 – over the rest of a widely unknown field if HRC is not the candidate.

What this Q Poll shows to me is surprising early strength for a Marco Rubio candidacy, especially against Cruz and Walker. While Rubio has emerged to supplant Jeb Bush’s presumptive front-runner status, the onus appears to be on Bush rather than Rubio to prove he can be someone to unite the party. Bush’s early numbers here don’t bode well for him against Rubio’s post-bounce momentum. And while a Mike Huckabee candidacy could shift the ground under Rubio’s early support, the fact that Rubio garners stronger white evangelical support (15%) than Huckabee (11%) at the outset will be problematic for the better-known Huckabee.

It’s early. Several major candidates are weeks away from active campaigns, and there is still much ground to cover. But Rubio’s emergence from also-ran to front-runner has the look and feel of a sustained position. Can he keep it? Stay tuned.

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a messaging and media firm with offices in Florida and Washington, D.C.