Rubio's 3-2-1 Strategy Sounded Great; But Does 3-5-4 Work?

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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A couple of weeks ago, sources inside the Rubio campaign were touting his “3-2-1” strategy:

According to multiple Rubio allies recently briefed on campaign strategy, the senator’s team has settled on an unconventional path to winning the GOP primary contest. The strategy, dubbed “3-2-1” by some who have been briefed on it, forecasts a sequence in which Rubio takes third place in Iowa on February 1, finishes second in New Hampshire on February 9, and wins South Carolina on February 20. From there, Rubio would be well-positioned in the long haul to win a plurality of voters, and ultimately a majority of delegates, in a three-way contest against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

This planning represents a concession from Rubio’s brain trust that Cruz and Trump will take the top two spots in Iowa – most likely in that order – and that Trump will win New Hampshire.

More boldly, it assumes that a Rubio victory will be possible in South Carolina even if he doesn’t win either of the first two states. This would not be unprecedented; Newt Gingrich in 2012 won South Carolina after finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. But many GOP officials and rival campaign representatives believe that Cruz and Trump victories in the first two contests would generate a head-to-head battle for the nomination, depriving their also-ran opponents of political oxygen heading into South Carolina.


The line between ‘bold’ and ‘folly’ is exceedingly fine. Likewise, that between ‘clever plan’ and ‘wishful thinking.’

As much as I like Rubio, it is getting harder for me to see a path forward for him. Let’s take a quick recap of New Hampshire:

rcp nh final

The New Hampshire polls were not great but they are notable for two things: they under-estimated Trump and over-estimated Rubio outside the margin of error.

As we move forward to South Carolina this is what the polling landscape looks like:

The South Carolina primary bears a lot of similarities to that in New Hampshire. They are small states. They are states with few media markets so they are well suited to Donald Trump’s campaign style of large scale rallies. So we can probably expect Trump to perform at least as well as the polls indicated. Like New Hampshire, Rubio will be taking concentrated fire from Jeb Bush and Right to Rise as well as from Kasich, to the extent that he actually has anything to shoot. Christie will be out of the race by the end of today. It is unlikely that Rubio benefits from those voters… on the other hand Bush will almost certainly be their new home.


Rubio went into last night’s fight in second place in the RCP average, this after a poor debate performance and being attacked by Bush and Christie for a week. He cratered. He’s showing that he is much weaker in South Carolina, despite significant endorsements, than he should be if he seriously hopes to win.

His best case scenario seems to be a third place finish. A more likely scenario is that Rubio finishes fourth in South Carolina behind Trump, Cruz, and Bush.

If that comes to pass it is difficult to see how Rubio remains a viable candidate and that is a shame.
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