Marco Rubio is hot, hot, hot — or at least that’s what you’d surmise if you’ve been reading the political news media over the last week or so. “Is Marco Rubio the New Favorite to Win the GOP Nomination?” asks MSNBC. “Why Marco Rubio’s Chances Are Rising,” reads the New York Times. “Rubio gains the hot hand,” says US News. The Los Angeles Times says he’s “surging in the polls.”
So how much has Rubio risen recently? Ten points? Twenty points? Nope, nothing like that at all. While he has ticked up a bit, a bit is all it is. We’re seeing the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy, driven mostly by the media but probably with the active participation of elite Republicans who see general election potential in Rubio.
By any objective measure, Rubio isn’t doing much better than he was a month or a year ago. But we’re at the beginning of a cycle that could push Rubio higher, all because a bunch of people are making a prediction about what they think is going to happen in five or six months, not because of what’s actually happening now. It’s a kind of dispatch from the future — but one that helps create the future it’s predicting.
Let’s take a quick look at the polls to see where Rubio actually is. We’ll use the Huffpost Pollster average of Rubio’s numbers since the start of last year:
So here’s the story of Rubio’s support among the Republican electorate: It was between five and seven percent for most of 2014, then it rose to around 11 percent this May, then it fell to around five percent by September, and in the past month it has risen to its current average of 9.7 percent. So all the movements have been within 5 points or so, including this latest little improvement. Whatever else you might say about Rubio, you can’t say that voters are flocking to him in any significant quantity. He’s currently in fourth place, behind Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. In Iowa he’s in fifth, and in New Hampshire he’s in seventh.
But that will probably change. Here’s how the prophecy of Rubio’s future success becomes self-fulfilling. Members of the media decide that Rubio has a good chance of winning the nomination. Then they begin writing more stories about him. Those stories tend to be very positive, not because of some personal pro-Rubio bias any reporter has, but because the stories’ basic frame — Rubio is climbing, Rubio could be the nominee — leads them to focus on his more appealing characteristics and the things he’s doing right, as a way of explaining what they say is happening (just as a story about Jeb Bush’s drop in the polls will naturally focus on mistakes that he’s made and things he’s doing wrong). Voters see all this positive coverage, and begin thinking, “Gee, that Rubio fellow is pretty appealing.” Donors see it and give him more money. Other Republican politicians see it and start thinking about whether it’s time to make their endorsement. Each tiny movement upward in the polls, no matter how small, reinforces the cycle and keeps propelling him upward.
To be clear, there are perfectly valid reasons why we in the media think that Rubio has an excellent chance at being the nominee and would be a strong general election candidate. If history is any guide, the “outsider” candidates will eventually fall, and Rubio is the only “insider” candidate whose support is going up, not down. Scott Walker is gone, Jeb Bush is struggling, and none of the other officeholders seem to be generating any interest among voters. Rubio has long had strong approval ratings among Republicans, so even those who are now supporting someone else don’t dislike him. He’s an excellent speaker both with prepared texts and extemporaneously. When you hear him talk he sounds informed and thoughtful, and much less reactionary than his actual ideas would suggest. He presents a young, Hispanic face for a party that desperately needs not to be seen as the party of old white guys.
All these things are true. But they aren’t explanations for why huge numbers of people are now supporting him, because huge numbers of people aren’t now supporting him. They’re reasons why huge numbers of people might support him one day. Similarly, the GOP establishment may well decide that Jeb Bush is a lost cause and put its money, endorsements, and institutional support behind Rubio, which would eventually translate into votes. But that’s not a present reality, it’s a future possibility.
As any student of quantum physics knows, the fact that a phenomenon is being observed affects the phenomenon itself. This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy isn’t an iron law — Scott Walker benefited from a lot of coverage about how much potential he had, and he eventually tumbled because he turned out to be a terrible candidate. But right now the entire Rubio surge is hypothetical, and the more we in the media talk about it, the less hypothetical and more real it’s likely to become.