Marco RubioMarco RubioLongtime GOP incumbent will not seek reelection Overnight Defense: Commander calls North Korea crisis 'worst' he's seen | Trump signs VA order | Dems push Trump to fill national security posts What’s with Trump’s spelling mistakes? MORE is on the move in New Hampshire, edging up to second place in almost all recent polls of the crucial primary state.
Of the five significant surveys undertaken in New Hampshire since the middle of last month — from WBUR, Fox News, CBS News, The Boston Globe and Public Policy Polling (PPP) — four put Rubio in second place. The one exception, the PPP poll, had him in third, two percentage points behind Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzKasich finds it hard to rule out 2020 Trump in campaign mode at NRA convention Trump’s hands are tied on 9th Circuit MORE (Texas).
“All year, in primary polling, what has been striking to me is the gap between the number of voters who said they would actually choose Rubio, which tended to be low, and Rubio’s net favorability, which always tended to be high,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
“I think the net favorability was an encouraging sign, and we are starting to see that play out now.”
The improvement in Rubio’s overall support has been modest but steady. He stands at around 12 percent support in the current RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of New Hampshire polls, as opposed to 7 percent two months ago and 10 percent last month.
Those gains have come as top-tier rival Dr. Ben Carson has faded and as Rubio’s mentor-turned-rival, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, continues to slide. Bush was at 7 percent support in the RCP New Hampshire average on Friday, compared to 9 percent exactly two months before.
Rubio’s rise may have more to do with his prowess on the national stage than any specific resonance in New Hampshire. According to data from New England Cable News (NECN), as of Friday, Rubio had visited the Granite State 16 times since his campaign began. That makes him a less frequent presence than Bush or Trump (20 visits apiece), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (23 visits) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (33 visits).
Some insiders argue Rubio will pay a price for this early neglect for retail politicking.
“Rubio might be the alternative to Trump that [New Hampshire] voters will want, but it’s too soon to know that,” said a Republican strategist in the state who is not working for any rival candidate but who wished to remain anonymous.
“He has still spent less time here — a lot less time — than virtually any other candidate, with the exceptions of Carson, [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee and [former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum. When he eventually undergoes a tough spell, it will be much harder for him to sustain his support.”
Rubio’s campaign, predictably, does not see it that way. Aides promise that New Hampshire voters will get plenty of chances to see the candidate up close and personal. The senator was in the state on Friday, speaking to a Republican women’s event in Greenland.
“We’ve always believed that Marco can do very well in New Hampshire, and voters there will see him a lot in coming weeks,” Rubio’s communications director Alex Conant told The Hill. “Our TV ads began running in New Hampshire earlier this week, and we have several trips scheduled.”
Conant was careful to add, however, that “unlike some campaigns who are only focusing on one state, we believe that Marco can compete everywhere because he is a next-generation conservative who can unite the party.”
Rubio’s fortunes in New Hampshire will depend on the extent to which he can close what is now a yawning chasm between him and Trump. The businessman is currently 15 points clear, with more than double Rubio’s support, according to the RCP average.
Many people urge caution about reading too much into the polls at this stage.
“He is gaining support in the polls this week and last week so it is a symbol — of something,” said David Carney, a veteran GOP strategist in New Hampshire. “He is the latest flavor of the month, but time will tell whether that will translate into votes in February. There are plenty of carcasses along the primary highway, where people get overheated about one or two polls.”
Others point out that the sheer number of candidates in the field complicates the picture. Christie, for example, has been making some inroads recently, having risen to 10 percent support and fourth place in the recent PPP poll in New Hampshire.
“For Rubio, he wants that Bush-Kasich cohort to do as poorly as possible,” said Scala. “A stronger Chris Christie would hurt Rubio.”
The New Jersey governor clearly has Rubio in his sights, too. At a campaign event Friday in Iowa, Christie told NBC News that Rubio “has no experience making decisions.” He had sounded a similar theme in an interview with The Atlantic, where he said of the Floridian, “There’s not a lot of depth there.”
“One of the same things that plagues Bush, Christie, Kasich, Fiorina and anyone running (more or less) in the so-called ‘establishment’ lane is also plaguing Rubio,” said the anonymous GOP strategist. “They are all diluting the anti-Trump vote, and cannibalizing each other’s support, and that is unfortunate for the Republican Party as a whole.”