Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has one of the best favorable/unfavorable ratings of any GOP presidential contender. It is not hard to figure out why. Unlike Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), he does not come with a hard edge. Unlike Hillary Clinton, he’s young and quick on his feet. Unlike Donald Trump, he’s not mean or bullying. And while taking a serious tone about foreign policy and being forthright about threats, his campaign theme — a new American century — is forward-looking and optimistic. Even opposing campaigns acknowledge, yeah, people really like him.
It makes sense for him to release an ad to show off his easygoing personality, making him seem like a regular guy:
Both this ad and his ad on faith contain no policy positions. Indeed, they are politics-free. Meanwhile, he’s unloading on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with negative ads.
In a year in which channeling anger is the norm, Rubio’s nice-guys-finish-first approach is a bit of a throwback. It has been conventional wisdom for decades that the more likable candidate (the winner in the “Who do you want to have a beer with?” poll question) is the favorite to win. And conversely, high negative ratings (of the type that currently plague Jeb Bush) make it near impossible to win, provided your opponents are not even more unlikable). Nevertheless, this year’s election seems to be a contest about who can project the most rage.
Especially in a year like this, many 40-something candidates would be afraid of coming off as frivolous or too young, which is exactly the line of attack Christie is pursuing. Rubio, however, has already developed a reputation for sober policy proposals and detailed knowledge. His debate performances have cemented the impression he is a polished, wonkish pol. He therefore can feel comfortable throwing some feel-good ads into the mix.
There is another real risk here for Rubio, however. Voter turnout usually requires intensity, the sort of intensity you see in angry, fired-up tea party supporters. If you just “like” someone, is there a risk you won’t be motivated to show up on Election Day? We will find out early next month.
Finally, Rubio critics claim he is undefined, not telling voters exactly who he is. Last month The Post reported:
He tells voters that he has a personal view on the subject — whether abortion, immigration, Syrian refugees or gay marriage. But he also has a view of what is politically possible. Which, usually, is not what he personally wants.
That tactic allows Rubio to offer two right answers to the same question, and lets him carve out wiggle room on topics where none seemed possible. . . . Such a strategy might guard him against being pushed too far to the right for general election appeal, but avoid riling conservatives during the primaries. But the extent of his equivocation on key issues has left many Republicans, including his supporters, wondering what he really believes.
Moreover, it’s conventional campaign wisdom that if you don’t define yourself, others will — and in ways you do not like.
There is something to all that. Nevertheless, remember past presidential candidates proficient at allowing voters to project their own expectations onto them and at leading people with widely different political views to think the candidates were on their side: President Obama and President Bill Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan won over voters who did not agree with him simply because he was so agreeable and sunny.
In short, tremendous political skills obviate a lot of concerns and conventional campaign wisdom. Rubio may well be the most skilled Republican of his generation. When you have a candidate that good, you want to let him do his thing. If nothing else, it certainly provides a contrast to many of his competitors. Whether that works in the year of the angry voter remains to be seen.