Philanthropist Donald Trump was in Iowa last Saturday, where he gave prepared remarks about America’s post-colonial experience in Southeast Asia, with specific emphasis on the role of naval forces and the impact of a particular soldier’s five year interaction with the indigenous population. In light of the ubiquitous attention focused on Mr. Trump’s well-received speech, you may not realize that several other presidential candidates also spoke in Iowa last weekend. (Ahem, removes tongue from cheek…)
Because Patrick has deftly reviewed the Democratic candidates who appeared at the Hall of Fame Dinner last weekend, I want to turn the attention to two of the GOP candidates, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. Both Rubio and Walker appeared in Sioux City last weekend. Rubio did a traditional town hall event on Friday, and then, less than a block away, Scott Walker did an RV stop as part of his announcement tour on Saturday morning. The Northwest Iowa crowds were nearly identical. (Not only were the crowd sizes roughly the same, about 100-125 people each,* but it was actually many of the same people. **) After watching both men speak, I am left asking one question: what in the heck do people see in Marco Rubio???
Now, before we get into a play by play, you may be asking, is it really fair to compare Walker and Rubio? One is a governor from Wisconsin and the other is a senator from Florida. The former dropped out of college and shops at Kohl’s, while the latter is an attorney who married an NFL cheerleader. Clearly they have some differences. But they also have a lot in common. The way I look at the GOP lineup, Walker and Rubio are more or less fighting for the same votes. Walker is slightly more associated with the evangelical wing, and Rubio is more establishment, but both are seen as young guns who are broadly palatable to the public. In any GOP conversation, you hear both Walker and Rubio described as “young, energetic, and brilliant,” and both guys have taken their lumps. (Rubio dying on the altar of immigration reform, an issue championed by the establishment GOP desperate for Hispanic votes, and Walker for his near recall over his attacks on public sector unions.) Either man is seen as a better prospect for attracting young people to the GOP cause then, say, Professor Trump. If you asked the Morning Joe Republicans such as Joe Scarborough and Nicole Wallace, their preferred candidates in order would probably be Jeb, Rubio, and Walker. (Everyone having abandoned the Chris Christie cause.) Since Jeb is both older, and carrying his unique set of family baggage, that leaves Walker and Rubio as comparable establishment candidates.
Let’s start our discussion with Walker. His event in Sioux City had a lot of potential for failure. It was outside on a muggy, hot day. It was in the morning on a Saturday, and happened in the middle of the Ragbrai kickoff. (Riders started their trek across Iowa in Sioux City on Sunday morning.) But Walker hit one out of the park. His speech, as ever, was both personal and grand. He interwove his narrative (shopping at Kohl’s) with his conservative vision of the country. Applause broke out numerous times. He then smartly curtailed the length of his remarks in light of the heat, which, in the tradition of the best performers, left the audience wanting more. (I heard “I can’t wait until he comes back” more than once.) By ending his remarks early, Walker was able to spend a lot of time mingling with the crowd. No matter how many times he heard “Great Speech!” or “You are amazing!” his responses seemed genuine. He listened to what each audience member had to say and took time to relate. (Although, the “I grew up in Iowa too” response may fall on deaf ears when he is campaigning in South Carolina, so he should work on some variety.) Even arriving in an RV, a campaign tactic that could easily seem like gimmick, worked with the persona he is developing.
Contrast that with Rubio’s town hall. Rubio’s event was in the party room of a local bar. The room could comfortably seat about fifty people. With media and staff, there were more than a hundred people in attendance and we were packed to the gills. People were ready for fresh air fifteen minutes before Rubio started speaking. Once the event started, Rubio was visibly bored. (Check out this brief video taken while state Senator Rick Bertrand introduced Rubio. Rubio is so spaced out he doesn’t notice when Bertrand is trying to throw to him. Rubio’s explanation was that he was fighting a cold.) In spite of those issues, Rubio gave a full forty minute stump speech. If anyone should have ever cut their stump speech a little short because of the conditions on the ground, Rubio should have. (“I’m a little under the weather, so I’ll say a little about myself and then jump straight to your questions.”) Unfortunately, Rubio went ahead and delivered his full speech in an unconvincing monotone that barely even hinted when he expected people to applause. His boredom and illness were palatable and you could see the audience struggling to stay with him.
Following his stump, Rubio took questions, and things went from bad to worse. On his first or second question, a (polite) tracker (I’m assuming) asked Rubio about climate change. Rubio snapped at the young girl that “the people talking about climate change are advocating destroying the economy” (my paraphrase) and he quickly changed the subject. Now, I have seen lots of trackers ask a lot of loaded questions. And it is saying something when I can tell you that Fred Thompson could handle tracker questions better than Marco Rubio. Even if you disagree that global warming is real, you should be able to at least admit that people’s concern for the environment comes from a genuine place of caring, before you pivot to your standard talking point that unfounded climate science is no reason to risk the economy. (Especially if, like Rubio, you identify as Catholic and the head of your church repeatedly talks about climate change as a moral issue.) Rubio’s response struck me as incredibly hostile. Rubio then got a question about immigration. I know Rubio’s position on immigration, and I have an idea about the person who asked the question. (Rubio is for securing the border and then some type of reform, while the questioner had a more hardline stance.) But Rubio’s answer meandered all over the place. It was far too much “secure the border, get E-Verify” to make proponents of comprehensive immigration reform happy, but it was far too complex an answer to make Steve King fans happy.
Next, I asked a question about Viceroy Trump. (Thinking it would give Rubio, known to have a more moderate stance on issues like immigration, an opportunity to distinguish himself from the racially inflamed pronouncements of his Lordship of Trump, and maybe even agree with the Huffington Post that the Reverenced Trump was more entertainment than substance.) Rubio punted on his answer, saying Trump would be in the debate and we would get a chance to hear from him. (This is in sharp contrast to Scott Walker, who started his remarks the next morning by blasting Grand Poobah Trump for his comments about John McCain and POWs. Rubio has since attacked Trump. But when given the chance on Friday, he demurred.)
Rubio’s last question was a standard abortion question. Instead of giving the standard answer (“I am 100% pro-life period”), Rubio gave a complex answer about how a woman has right to make her own choices, but a fetus has a right to life. What I *think* Rubio was trying to do was distance himself from Rick Santorum types by saying, essentially, that I am against abortion, but in favor of other types of contraception/family planning. But honestly, if all you had to go on was the answer Rubio gave, it would be heard to tell what he meant. Then the official event ended and it was time for Rubio to mingle with voters. One of the first people to talk to Rubio was a proponent of the fair tax who also wanted to end birth right citizenship. Rubio had to get in a slightly heated conversation with the man explaining that the former plan wouldn’t work, and the latter idea was unconstitutional. Rubio recovered enough to take pictures with excited audience members, but his uncomfortable voter interaction pretty much summed up his day in Sioux City.
So, all that said, I’ll return to my central question: What the heck do people see in Marco Rubio? It certainly isn’t Rubio’s presentation on the stump. Walker blows Rubio out of the water. Scott Walker talks about buying cheap shirts and his story resonates. For whatever reason, you literally visualize mopey-looking Walker sorting through plaid shirts on the clearance rack on his way to a Packers game. Meanwhile, Rubio talks about how his Dad was a bartender (so was mine) and how he had mountains of law school debt (so does my brother) and I can’t feel any connection to him. All I see is the politician.
Moreover, Walker has achievement after achievement in pushing Wisconsin’s government in a conservative direction. In the last few weeks he has signed anti-abortion bills and pro-gun bills. Most importantly, Walker has been a true blue conservative warrior in his ongoing fight against unions.***
Meanwhile, what has Rubio done? Well, he gave the response to the State of the Union (an admittedly thankless job) and became the go-to joke for anyone with dry mouth for the next few decades. Rubio then took a bullet for the Republican Central Committee by pushing for his version of the Dream Act. Helping with Hispanic voters no doubt endeared Rubio to the RNC, but it definitely didn’t burnish his image with party activists. (Pushing a position unpopular with your base, and then failing to achieve anything, is no way to win support.) I have heard some people talk favorably about Rubio’s time in the Florida State Legislature. And there is no doubt that Florida turned right while Rubio was in office. But do you know who was governor during most of Rubio’s tenure? A fellow by the name John Ellis Bush. (His friends call him Jeb.) And Bush is probably going to want to take the credit for Florida’s conservative shift during the oughts.
So what do people see in Rubio? I’m afraid my answer is pretty cynical. It’s his ability to appeal to Hispanic voters. That is his selling point. And Rubio’s appeal is top down. What I mean is that people at the top think Rubio would be good at appealing to a certain segment of the population, so they are pushing him and supporting his candidacy. So far, I just don’t see any bottom up support for Rubio. And as Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee will tell you, bottom up, grassroots support is key to winning the Iowa caucus.
Clearly I think that in an apple to apple contest, Walker beats Rubio hands down. But that doesn’t mean I think Walker is a perfect candidate. As Katie Glueck of Politico noted, Walker recycles the same speech over and over again. In fact, his speech in Sioux City had hardly changed from the speech he gave at Steve King’s Freedom Summit last winter. It’s not a huge issue right now because Walker is just starting, his speech is darn good and he is incredibly friendly in his meet and greets with voters. (He takes photos, signs pictures, answers questions, all while – seemingly – enjoying the chance to talk to ‘real’ people.) But at some point he will have to vary his message. It is not possible to get every aspect of your agenda out twenty minutes at a time if you never cycle in different topics. Moreover, saying the same lines over and over is a terrible way to prepare for the upcoming debates. (I can only imagine what Dr. Trump will say to Walker’s Kohl’s anecdote. “When I’m president, you won’t have to worry about me wasting time shopping or clipping coupons like this dummy. I’ve got the best people. The very best. The best you’ve ever seen. And my people buy me the best shirts. Look at this shirt! Look. It’s amazing. You’ve never seen a shirt like this before. Better than the shirts these dummies are wearing. No president has ever had shirts like these. And do you know what I say if my people don’t buy the best shirts? I say ‘you’re fired,’ that’s what I say.”)
Also, the Walker campaign is employing the increasingly common tactic of encouraging people to go online to get town hall tickets in advance. (I have seen Rand Paul and Professor Trump employ the same ticket tactic in the last few weeks.) I understand why campaigns are going the Eventbrite ticket route. Requiring Eventbrite ‘tickets’ ensures that attendees go online in advance and fill out their information. Campaigns survive on getting contact information, so ensuring that you have the info in hand before admitting people into the event makes sense. But – and I want to speak directly to campaigns here – requiring ‘tickets’ for your events is keeping people from showing up. Many of the people who go out to see candidates are elderly. They follow rules. If they hear that you were supposed to have tickets for an event, and they don’t have tickets, they won’t go. If some of the elderly-est hear that tickets are only available online, they definitely won’t go. (“Computers… bah humbug.”)
This isn’t a hypothetical argument. At Rubio’s event in Sioux City, I heard three couples talking about the Walker event the next day. Group one said, “Are you going to Walker tomorrow?” Group two said, “Maybe.” Group three interjected and said, “You needed to get tickets to go see Walker.” Group one then said, “I guess we will have to forget about that, we don’t have tickets.” At that point, I interjected and said that tickets are not mandatory and the campaigns will let you in regardless. (Because campaigns that turn away interested voters because those voters didn’t get tickets are suicidal.) But campaigns – and I’m talking directly to you again – I don’t have time to tell every interested voter that they can go see your candidate even if they didn’t get a ticket. So you may want to change your strategy.
Finally, Walker has some political issues. He flip-flopped on immigration and common core, and his approval rating back in Wisconsin is sliding. He opened a Pandora’s box by intoning that his wife and children supported same sex marriage, even though he doesn’t. There have also been grumblings that Walker’s organization is not ready from prime time. (There is some evidence of this on the ground. At the event in Sioux City, elderly attendees did not want to sit in the sun, so they commandeered folding chairs from the local GOP office and sat in the shade away from the main speaking stage, behind the media podium. This left the crowd directly in front of Walker looking a little meager.)
But, I don’t see any of these issues as fatal. There is still plenty of time to work out organizational kinks. (The Sioux City stop was literally part of the campaign kickoff.) Every (viable) candidate has flipped on a few issues. (Even Chancellor Trump has changed his position on something as vital as whether or not he supports the Clintons.) And it is hard to attack someone on a position of one of their family members. (For instance, Jeb’s Mother, until recently, was against another Bush in office.) Because Walker’s issues are minor and because of his ability foster grass roots support, he seems like a much more viable candidate that Marco Rubio. If Marco Rubio wants to get ahead in Iowa and be President of the United States, his campaign needs to answer the question, “what the heck should people see in Marco Rubio?”
*Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal said the Walker crowd was roughly 200 people. That is likely a number inflated by the campaign. Brianne Pfannenstiel at the Des Moines Register had a more reasonable number at 150. My count at the Walker event was between 120-130, when you excluded media and people affiliated with Walker’s campaign. (The number fluctuated a bit since it was an outside event, and some folks wandered up or away as Walker spoke.) Meanwhile, Hayworth has Rubio’s number at approximately 140. That is probably a little high too. Without reporters, my count at Rubio’s was around a 100 people.
**I have photos of the crowd from both events, and you can recognize many faces in both sets of photos.
***I am strongly pro-union, so I want to make clear that although I think Walker’s positions will benefit him in the GOP caucus, I completely disagree with him as a matter of policy.
by Jason Winter