With Florida's winner-take-all primary one week away and the Sunshine State's own Marco Rubio needing a win there to stay alive, I reached out to Florida politics guru Adam Smith to pick his brain about the state of play in the state. Smith is the political editor at the Tampa Bay Times and a fixture on our annual best state-based political reporters list. My conversation with Smith, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Explain Donald Trump’s popularity/polling lead in Florida. Is it purely built on name ID or is there something more?
Smith: It's much more than mere name ID. Florida is the ultimate microcosm of the country as a whole, and Trump has tapped into the same sentiments here as he has elsewhere: anxiety, frustration with politics as usual, hope that a successful outsider can finally shake things up. The intricacies of campaign finance reform may not resonate with many voters, but the appeal of a candidate who is not bankrolled by special interests is vast. And don't underestimate the potency of illegal immigration as a Republican primary issue, even in a state with a large Hispanic population. Gov. Rick Scott ran against the Republican establishment and won his gubernatorial primary in 2010 vowing to enact hard-line immigration policies which he never did.
FIX: Marco Rubio is down anywhere between eight and 16 points to Trump in Florida. He’s got a week to make up the ground. Can he? And, if so, how.
Smith: Another poll by the Tarrance Group for the anti-Trump super PAC Our Principles has Rubio down just five points in Florida. Today's election results elsewhere may give us a better sense of whether Trump is losing support and how significantly, but I don't hear many people in Florida sensing or seeing a big shift away from the front-runner. Probably at least half the vote will be cast before Tuesday, but regardless of what polls with very small sample sizes may show, it is hard to know whom the early vote advantages. The bottom line is obvious: If Trump is ahead by five to eight percentage points, maybe Rubio can pull it off. Overcoming a double digit deficit is tough without some big development. (And no, a Jeb Bush endorsement of Rubio would not be a big enough development.) As of this morning anti-Trump groups are spending about five times more on TV in Florida than Trump, so if Trump does wind up losing Florida, his frugality will be a factor.
FIX: What does the Florida political class make of Rubio? He helped take down Jeb but looks now like more of a Trump spoiler than anything else. Is this race seen as a good thing or a bad thing for his career?
Smith: It's interesting to see the different perceptions of the political class in Florida versus nationally. Florida's political elites definitely overestimated Jeb's political skills and appeal, because they witnessed an extremely strong governor who accomplished most of his ambitious agenda. Members of the national political intelligentsia probably inflated Rubio's strength as a candidate because they looked mainly at demographics, his family story, and speaking skill. Floridians who watched Rubio in action remember a Florida House speaker who tended to get rolled by the governor and state Senate [and] who was better at promoting his image than accomplishing things. He's young and ran a credible campaign. It's hard to see how this race has hurt his career long term. What happens Tuesday and what Rubio does after that will answer that question.
FIX: Where does Rubio go from here, politically speaking, assuming he doesn’t win the nomination? The Senate filing deadline isn’t until June 24. Might he reconsider and run for a second term?
Smith: Can you imagine Rubio suddenly running for a second Senate term after having spent the past year skipping votes and committee meetings and insisting it didn't matter because Senate work doesn't matter much compared to the presidency? It would be a fun story to cover, but I think that door is shut. A lot of people in Tallahassee see Rubio running for governor in 2018, but I'm skeptical. He has not shown much interest in state issues and would have to get through a a tough primary. Depending on what happens with a contested convention, I think vice president remains plausible at this point. And don't forget that four years from today, when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump may be running for reelection, Rubio will be just 48 years old.
FIX: Finish this sentence: Marco Rubio’s grade as a candidate in the 2016 race is ___________. Now, explain.
Smith: B-minus. Considering he's losing his home state at the moment, that may be generous. The promise of Rubio never lived up to the reality. In no state did he build an especially strong campaign. He was a good, not great, fundraiser. He generally played it safe — trying hard not to antagonize any particular wing of the GOP while also failing to inspire great passion in any wing. It took great instincts and more guts than many people realize to jump in the race after Jeb Bush signaled he would run, but we rarely saw those guts and instincts from Rubio after he announced. I'm not sure Rubio has shown he's much more than a Republican John Edwards — a telegenic guy with one great speech and family story but not much else.