Marco Rubio’s last minute surge in Iowa has a lot in common with John Kerry’s last minute surge to victory in Iowa in 2004. Like Rubio, Kerry was an early frontrunner. Like Rubio, Kerry underperformed all fall as an anti-establishment candidate (Howard Dean) came from nowhere to dominate the field. Like Rubio, Kerry benefitted in the closing weeks from a nasty battle between the two Iowa frontrunners (Dean and Richard Gephardt). Like Rubio, Kerry counterpunched in those final weeks by stressing his electability. Among the Iowans who called electability “crucial” to their vote, Kerry beat Dean by 16 points. Among the Iowans who said they cared most about which candidate could “win in November,” Rubio beat Trump by 18.
For party insiders, Kerry’s success proved that Democratic voters had come to their senses; that Dean’s moment had come and gone. But that wasn’t right. Kerry had beaten Dean not by challenging the Vermont governor’s anti-war message but by pledging to more effectively sell it. In October, Kerry voted against a bill to fund the Iraq war he had once voted to authorize and “began to sound more and more like an antiwar candidate.” One poll found that 13 percent of Iowa voters considered Kerry the candidate best described as having “opposed the war.” As Dean’s pollster would later lament, Kerry was “liberally borrowing our message.”
This year, Rubio did something similar. He surged by borrowing Trump’s message while pledging to more effectively package it. In the final weeks before Iowa, Rubio grew markedly more anti-immigration. Having previously warned against using terrorism as a pretext to restrict legal immigration, the Florida senator in mid-January declared that because of the rise of ISIS, “the entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first and foremost.” He also followed Trump’s lead on trade, suggesting that he might oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement he had once praised.
Rubio echoed Trump when it came to the rights of Muslims, too. Asked in a January debate about Trump’s call for banning Muslim immigration, Rubio praised the billionaire for having “tapped in to some of that anger that’s out there about this whole issue because this president has consistently underestimated the threat of ISIS.” Then, after talking about how awful ISIS is, Rubio declared that, “When I’m president. If we do not know who you are, and we do not know why you are coming when I am president, you are not getting into the United States of America.” The listener who didn’t already know Rubio’s position might well have thought he supports Trump’s plan. When asked about Trump’s call for closing mosques, Rubio did Trump one better, declaring that, “It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down any place—whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an Internet site—any place where radicals are being inspired.”
Rubio also began hinting that President Obama was a kind of traitor. “Barack Obama,” he warned darkly, “has deliberately weakened America.” He wants to “cut [America] down to size.” And having once pitched himself as a bridge between the GOP and the changing face of twenty-first century America, Rubio instead began appealing to “all of us who feel out of place in our own country.”
Comparatively, Rubio remains the “moderate” in the GOP race, just as Kerry was among the Democrats in 2004. But Trump has redefined what “moderate” means. In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney and John McCain never had to praise a rival for suggesting a religious litmus test for entering the country. During their presidential bids, Romney and McCain both shifted right on illegal immigration. But they didn’t backpedal on their support for legal immigration. And they never implied that Obama trying to sabotage a country he didn’t really love.
Trump may have lost in Iowa but Trumpism won. The fact that the moderate in the GOP race is now peddling a version of The Donald’s message testifies to how profound his effect has been. And it’s not likely to dissipate anytime soon.