In recent days, Marco Rubio has been gamely experimenting with a new strategy: Attempting to outdo Donald Trump in his own carnivalesque reality TV arena. Rubio has suggested that Trump urinated in his pants backstage at last week’s debate, presumably meaning that Trump lost control of his bladder in a fit of terror over the Florida Senator’s withering attacks. Rubio has also ridiculed Trump’s “horrible spray tan.” Rubio has even mocked Trump’s “small hands,” though he has not gone so far as to give voice to the unstated implications of that barb and why they should, er, diminish Trump in the eyes of GOP primary voters.
One Rubio adviser explained Rubio’s descent into the lowest of lowbrow Trumpian antics by claiming: “We came to the conclusion that if being a part of the circus is the price you have to pay in order for us to ultimately be able to talk about substantive policy, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
It turns out that this Rubio adviser, dispiritingly enough, may be on to something.
Here are a couple of charts that illustrate the point.
The most effective attacks on Trump are that he’s an “egomaniac and entertainer that cares more about gaining power and fame than helping the country.” The second most effective attacks are those raising doubts about whether he can be trusted to have his finger on the nuke button, and the third most effective attacks spotlight Trump’s penchant for saying “very disrespectful” things about women.
Only 27 percent of Republicans say it raises doubts for them that Trump says he’d carry out mass deportations and and fewer still say it raises doubts for them that Trump denies climate change.
The 46 percent of Republicans who say doubts are raised by Trump’s egomania and frivolity seems, if anything, low. But it turns out that number is substantially higher among moderates (click to enlarge):
Fifty six percent of moderate Republicans find attacks on Trump’s egomania and lust for power to be troubling. Rubio is making an appeal to relatively moderate, college educated, and suburban Republican voters in the Super Tuesday states and beyond. You can bet that the Rubio campaign has focus groups and internal polling that also show that this is the most effective way to go after Trump.
In the above poll, high percentages of moderates, it turns out, are also troubled by Trump’s policies and statements towards immigrants and Muslims. But one can’t help but notice that Rubio has not made a serious, sustained moral critique of those policies and statements a part of his arsenal of attacks against Trump. This is probably in part because he doesn’t want to alienate some of Trump’s less committed supporters, in hopes that he, rather than say Ted Cruz, might inherit them.
But this also points to a broader problem Rubio faces, which is that he can’t go really hard at some of the very things that are enabling Trump to succeed. It’s difficult for Rubio to attack Trump as too far to the right on immigration, because Rubio’s own alleged softness on immigration is one of the reasons he may be struggling among GOP primary voters. It’s also hard for Rubio to fault some of Trump’s other substantive positions, such as they are, because it may be Trump’s very willingness to break with conservative orthodoxy on multiple fronts (he seems to envision some kind of government role in giving everyone health care; he opposes free trade deals; he won’t touch entitlements) that is helping him succeed. Rubio generally faults Trump as a phony conservative, and attacks Trump for not having specific plans, but he seems reluctant to get all that specific about the true policy implications of their ideological differences. As Brian Beutler explains, the apparent appeal of Trump’s ideological heterodoxy is precisely what makes it so hard for establishment Republicans to attack him.
All of which means that joining Trump’s circus, as Rubio’s own adviser puts it above, really may be the only option for taking down Trump. And who knows: it’s still possible that it could work. Of course, as Jonathan Chait writes, there may well be a danger that this approach could end up diminishing Rubio, too. And it’s hard to see how anyone can beat Trump at this particular game, given that his talent for it seems pretty boundless.