Here's Florida Sen. Marco Rubio reacting to President Obama's apology to art history majors on Tuesday (and, yes, politics is super weird):
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 19, 2014
Why is Marco Rubio taking time to take a shot at President Obama over whether or not art history is a good major to pursue? (Caravaggio for the win!) For the same reason that Rubio was one of the first people to join Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the Senate floor during his nearly 24-hour protest of Obamacare. Or that he agreed to be the lead sponsor in the Senate of legislation that would install a 20-week abortion ban. Or that he went after Argentinian ambassadorial nominee Noah Mamet.
Rubio badly wants to prove -- or re-prove -- to conservatives that he is one of them following his lead role in the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform proposal in the Senate. The political damage to Rubio was swift. In a WMUR Granite State poll conducted in April 2013, Rubio stood at a solid 15 percent in a hypothetical New Hampshire Republican primary ballot test. By August, that same poll showed Rubio at just 6 percent and in fifth place.
University of New Hampshire polling director Andrew Smith had this to say about the numbers: "Rubio and [Chris] Christie have seen their net favorability ratings drop significantly – Rubio’s has dropped 18 percentage points since April and Christie’s has dropped 14 percentage points since February. These drops are indications that Rubio and Christie have alienated significant segments of the Republican base.”
Rubio's plummet wasn't contained to just New Hampshire. In Washington Post-ABC polling between August 2012 and June 2013, Rubio's strongly favorable numbers among conservatives dipped from 31 percent to 17 percent -- a sign of the dip in enthusiasm toward the Florida Senator.
Those problematic poll numbers have led Rubio to tumble from the ranks of the top-tier candidates in early 2016 handicapping. In our own Fix rankings, we had Rubio ranked as the candidate most likely to wind up as the Republican nominee when we released our first 2016 rankings back in February 2013. By January 2014, Rubio had dropped to 7th in our rankings.
If you want to run for president -- as Rubio does -- numbers like those are enough to set off a major sweat. And, they have to be addressed -- as quickly as possible. (Ask the Rubio team about his involvement in immigration reform and they will note that a) he had no choice as the party's most high profile Hispanic and b) it happened in early 2013, meaning there was/is plenty of time to contextualize his involvement with GOP voters.)
The quickest way to do that? Attack President Obama under the the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend theory of politics. Hence why Rubio was right by Cruz's side when the Texas Senator was standing, literally, in opposition to President Obama's health care law. Or attacking Obama's ambassadorial nominees. Or even tweeting about Obama's comments on art history majors. All of those attacks are tied together by Obama. Making himself a foil to Obama, which is what he seemed to be growing into before his dry-mouth response to the State of the Union in 2013 and his subsequent involvement in immigration reform, is the most reliable route to convincing conservatives that, the immigration apostasy aside, he is one of them.
(Sidenote: It's also worth pondering just how conservative Rubio actually is based on his voting record and time in office. It's my belief that Christie was somewhat miscast as a tea party darling in the 2010 election largely because he was running against the barely-Republican Charlie Crist. The counter to that argument is Rubio's voting record since coming to the Senate; he was the 17th most conservative voting Senator in National Journal's 2013 vote ratings and the 13th most conservative in the 2012 rankings. But the "how conservative is Rubio" question is for another post.)
There's some evidence that Rubio's attempted return to the right is working. In a Quinnipiac University poll released in December 2013, 50 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of him while seven percent had an unfavorable one. That's roughly equivalent to the 45 percent fav/4 percent unfav ratings Rubio had in the Q poll in February 2013 before immigration reform happened in the Senate. Of course, a mid-January 2014 Q poll showed Rubio at eight percent in a hypothetical 2016 horse race, down from 19 percent back in March 2013.
The problem for Rubio is that no matter what he does now to placate conservatives, his opponents in 2016 will make sure to remind those same voters of his involvement in legislation that provided a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. And, while that may well be a terrific resume point in a general election where Republicans badly need to court Hispanics, it's not likely to be popular -- at all -- among many conservatives in places like Iowa and South Carolina, two states that cast some of the earliest votes for president in 2016. Immigration reform may be gone for Rubio but it won't be forgotten. The question is whether he can prove to conservatives that it was an exception not the rule in his governing philosophy before votes start getting cast for president.