Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

The Washington Post has published an extraordinary and damning report on the rising alarm among Marco Rubio’s top supporters about his faltering campaign and his failure to emerge as the leading alternative to Donald Trump. Buried in the article is an anecdote that helps explain why Rubio — and, perhaps, other establishment Republicans — have come up short in halting Trump’s momentum, even after Rubio’s newly aggressive approach to the Donald earned so much empty hype.

With Rubio coming in third place or worse in the Super Saturday contests, the Post article reports that top Rubio supporters are worried that diving into the gutter with Trump has only diminished Rubio’s “young, optimistic image.” It relates that the Rubio campaign strategy of hyping his supposed “Marco-Mentum” on social media has only been “covering up massive deficiencies inside the states that were voting,” a polite way of saying that the Rubio spin machine failed to manufacture momentum that wasn’t really there.

And the piece reports that other Rubio backers are “worried that the freshman senator is not doing enough to make an effective case against the billionaire.” Why? This helps explain it:

As more than two dozen senior GOP Senate aides looked on Thursday afternoon at a private lunch presentation about the 2016 presidential race, conservative scholar Henry Olsen turned to Rubio’s chief of staff, Alberto Martinez, and offered a candid assessment of the senator’s campaign pitch.

Olsen said that while he appreciates Rubio’s sweeping call for building a “21st-century economy,” he worries that speaking in such broad terms in a year of populist unrest may be a political mistake.

Later, Olsen gently suggested that Rubio might be better served by fine-tuning his message with a more visceral appeal to working-class Americans who feel left behind and say he’s got their backs. Martinez listened politely, and the conversation moved on.

This tracks with what I’ve suggested, which is that Rubio is constrained from going hard at precisely the things that have enabled Trump to succeed among GOP voters. Rubio’s selling point to GOP elites had long been that he’d be best positioned to run a general election campaign shaped around the idea that Republicans need to make peace with demographic and cultural change. Trump, by contrast, is plainly running a campaign designed to capitalize on white backlash. But as it turns out, Trump’s call for proactive mass deportations and a ban on Muslims is, well, working among downscale Republican voters. So Rubio has not gone as hard at he might have at those things, even though that might appeal to the younger, suburban, better-educated GOP voters he’s trying to reach, perhaps because he hopes to avoid alienating working class Trump backers he might inherit later.

Meanwhile, Rubio has not prosecuted a strong ideological case against Trump, either. Trump does not argue that the answer to working class voters’ economic woes can be found in idealized notions of free markets and limited government. Instead, he says that stupid, corrupt or weak elites are the problem, promising good trade deals, as opposed to “free” ones. As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump envisions a government role of some kind in covering the uninsured (Obamacare may be stupid and a failure, but its ideological goals are defensible). Trump vows not to touch the entitlements of aging Republican voters. In sum, Trump combines virulent xenophobia (he would crush the dark forces that make these voters feel economically and physically insecure) with scalding ridicule of the GOP donor class (who is sponsoring Rubio and bankrolling the Stop-Trump campaign) and its domestic agenda for failing those voters, too.

Unlike Trump, Rubio has mostly shaped his agenda around the idea that restraining government is the answer to those voters’ economic woes (though he has nodded towards an affirmative middle class agenda by proposing middle class tax relief and an Obamacare replacement that would cover at least some people). But Trump’s success has exposed limits to that vision’s appeal among GOP voters. That has left Rubio attacking Trump in specific terms on his most glaring non-policy-oriented flaws (his murky business dealings, his disgusting public comments) while mostly defending the conservative vision in very general terms, promising to give conservatism a shot of youthful energy that will make it more palatable to demographically and culturally changing 21st century America.

All of this could help explain why Rubio has not been able, as the above anecdote relayed by the Post puts it, to make a “visceral appeal to working-class Americans who feel left behind and say he’s got their backs.” Trump has their backs.

This doesn’t mean Rubio is toast. If he wins winner-take-all Florida, perhaps he can muddle through to a contested convention and somehow come out of it with the nomination. But if Rubio does ultimately crash and burn, all this could help explain why.

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* CLINTON AND SANDERS BATTLE IN ‘REAL DEBATE’: Jonathan Cohn has a very good piece on the real differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that were on display at last night’s debate. A taste:

The contrast to the Republican debate from last week, with its juvenile insults, could not have been more stark. Instead of discussing penis length, Clinton and Sanders argued over the sizes of their respective infrastructure programs….the sharp debate offered Democratic Party voters a clear sense of the choice they face in this primary campaign. Stylistically, Clinton measures her words carefully, while Sanders relishes every chance to say something blunt or bold. Clinton talks about programs, while Sanders likes to invoke big themes. Clinton talks about what she can do, while Sanders talks about what he’d like to do.

Meanwhile, Sanders won more contests on Super Saturday than Clinton did, but Clinton emerged with more delegates.

* TRUMP CRUSHING IT IN MICHIGAN: With the Michigan GOP primary set for tomorrow, a new NBC/Marist poll finds Donald Trump way ahead of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, at 41-22-17-13. A new CBS News poll finds it at 39-24-16-15. Note this from CBS:

The poll provides a look at why the so-called establishment voices attempting to slow Trump’s momentum haven’t succeeded, at least not so far. By four to one, Michigan Republicans say they’re less likely to vote for a candidate with establishment backing, not more so.

Surely some tough words from failed billionaire plutocrat dream candidate Mitt Romney will be just the thing to turn this around.

* HILLARY LEADS BIG IN MICHIGAN: The NBC poll finds Hillary Clinton well ahead of Bernie Sanders there (57-40) and the CBS poll puts her up 55-44. From the NBC write-up:

Clinton is ahead of Sanders among African Americans (76 percent to 21 percent), those ages 45 and older (68 percent to 27 percent), Democrats (63 percent to 33 percent), women (61 percent to 36 percent), men (51 percent to 47 percent) and whites (49 percent to 48 percent). Sanders, meanwhile, leads among independents (60 percent to 36 percent) and those under 45 years old (61 percent to 39 percent).

In other words, in the Dem primary, it’s still the same old story.

* MONEY POURS IN TO STOP-TRUMP EFFORT: The New York Times reports that outside groups are ramping up their spending big time to stop Trump from winning the nomination:

Four different groups have reserved at least $10 million in airtime in Florida so far, according to trackers of media spending….Two from the American Future Fund, which has spent $2 million so far in Florida and Illinois, show decorated veterans assailing Mr. Trump as a poseur on military matters….Club for Growth Action…has placed $2 million in commercials attacking him in Illinois on top of $1 million in Florida….Our Principles PAC, which was created to defeat Mr. Trump, has reserved $3.5 million in Illinois and Florida and is also sending direct mail to voters’ homes in Florida.

In other words, all the cash is pouring into states that vote on March 15th. If Trump does well that day, the panic will grow to a deafening roar.

* IS ROMNEY ANGLING FOR NOMINATION AT CONVENTION? On Meet the Press, Romney was asked point blank if he’d accept the nomination at a contested convention. His answer:

“I can’t imagine anything like that happening. And I don’t think anyone in our party should say, ‘Oh no, even if the people in the party wanted me to be the president I would say no to it.’ No one’s going to say that. But…I’m not going to be a candidate, I’m going to be endorsing one of the people who’s running for president. And one of the people, I can guarantee you this, one of the people running for president, one of the four, is going to be the Republican party nominee…But I’m not running and I’m not going to be running.”

That seems to come very close to ruling it out, but what happens if none of the current contenders is close to Trump in delegates, despite him falling short of a majority?

* SOME REPUBLICANS EYE CRUZ AS ALTERNATIVE TO TRUMP: The Associated Press reports that some Republicans are beginning to see Ted Cruz, not Marco Rubio, as the most likely candidate to emerge as a serious competitor to Trump. But there’s a problem with this scenario. As the AP notes, Cruz is “the only candidate who causes as much heartburn among party elites as the billionaire businessman, if not sometimes more.”

Those silly GOP voters are being so dang uncooperative, aren’t they?

* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, WISHFUL THINKING EDITION: Top Sanders adviser Tad Devine tells Glenn Thrush that Sanders is not going to get out of the race anytime soon, adding: “Maybe they’re going to put him on the ticket then.”

I agree that Sanders has every incentive to stay in as long as possible, but this isn’t the likely conclusion.