How The Media Set Marco Rubio Up To Win By Losing In Iowa

Media outlets including The New York Times and CNN have helped to temper the expectations of Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio's chances in Iowa by buying into his campaign's messaging that a third place finish in the Iowa caucuses would be a victory for Rubio.

Politico Reported That Rubio's Campaign Has “Successfully Spun That He's Gunning Only For Third Place” In Iowa

Politico: "Rubio Has Successfully Spun That He's Gunning Only For Third Place" In Iowa. A January 31 report from Politico stated that Rubio's campaign “has successfully spun that he's gunning only for third place” in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. The article argued that “Rubio can lose to Cruz on Monday and walk away looking like the winner,” adding his campaign's messaging has made him “almost guaranteed to meet or beat diminished expectations”:

Somehow, against all the evidence, Rubio has successfully spun that he's gunning only for third place here. In sharp contrast, Cruz's campaign, touting its superior ground game, has openly pined for and predicted victory.

The result: In the closing hours before Monday's caucuses, Iowa is suddenly fraught with risk for Cruz while Rubio, who sits comfortably in third in most public and private polling, is almost guaranteed to meet or beat diminished expectations. (Donald Trump, who has violated just about every supposed rule in politics, has predicted victory everywhere.)


Rubio's team has been trying to have it both ways -- declaring momentum (and #Marcomentum on social media) at every turn while smothering talk of what momentum would mean: actually moving up in the electoral standings. In January, Cruz and Rubio campaigned in Iowa on an equal number of days. And in the crucial final three months, Rubio spent more days here than Cruz -- 25 to 20. [Politico, 1/31/16]

Media Have Helped Hype A Third Place Loss In Iowa As A Win For Rubio

New York Times: “A Large Margin” Over The Fourth Place Finisher In Iowa, “Would Give [Rubio] A Lift” In New Hampshire. The New York Times reported on January 24 that Rubio's campaign expected a third-place finish in Iowa and amplified the importance of winning a large “margin over whoever finishes in fourth place.” It continued that a “strong finish [in New Hampshire] would enable his supporters to start applying pressure to donors who have backed other candidates” as well as “give him a lift”:

A third-place finish is the most realistic outcome the Rubio campaign expects, but it realizes that his margin over whoever finishes in fourth place is also significant. A large margin going into the New Hampshire primary a week later would give him a lift there. With Iowa out of reach, New Hampshire is the state where Mr. Rubio hopes to be able to perform strongly enough to begin consolidating support from the more moderate, establishment-aligned wing of the Republican Party.

Though his campaign does not expect him to win in New Hampshire, either, a strong finish would enable his supporters to start applying pressure to donors who have backed other candidates, namely Jeb Bush, to jump on board. Many donors have privately indicated that they would switch their allegiances to Mr. Rubio, several people inside and outside his campaign have said, but they want to first see how New Hampshire votes. [The New York Times, 1/24/16]

National Review's Rich Lowry: “There's A Significant Chance That Rubio Overperforms” In Iowa. On the January 29 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File, National Review editor Rich Lowry explained the “expectations game” being played by Rubio's campaign while noting “a Marco Rubio surge.” Lowry then suggested “there's a significant chance that Rubio overperforms” in Iowa:

MEGYN KELLY (HOST): There's a lot of buzz going on right now about Marco Rubio. What do you think about the fact that Cruz has moved his attack ads from Trump -- he was only hitting Trump for the last few days -- to Rubio?

RICH LOWRY: Yeah, well there's been that buzz about a Marco Rubio surge, and this is an indication that at least the Cruz team believes it. Because you don't spend precious resources, like three days before the caucus, attacking someone who's not moving. So that shows the Cruz people think he's moving, and the Rubio people all along have been playing this expectations game, where they have downplayed expectations everywhere. Two days ago, I was talking to some Rubio strategists. I was like, 'You know, I think you can guys can finish 20 here.' They're like, 'Oh, that would never happen. You know, a meteor strike is more likely.' And then a day later the NBC poll comes out showing them at 18. So there's a significant chance that Rubio overperforms here, which will be all the more incredible given the Right to Rise money that's been dumped on him --

KELLY: That's the Jeb Bush Super PAC.

LOWRY -- millions and millions of dollars, and now the Cruz negative ads. [Fox News, The Kelly File, 1/29/16]

WSJ's Gerald Seib: “A Strong Third Place Finish In Iowa By Marco Rubio Would Look A Lot Different Than A Weak Third Place Finish.” On the January 29 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief Gerald Seib talked about the perceptions of Iowa voters and claimed that “a strong third place finish in Iowa by Marco Rubio would look a lot different than a weak third place finish”:

JENNA LEE (HOST): Based on your experience, do you think voters in these early states are voting to say this is the person I want to see as president, or this is the person I want to see in the race?

GERALD SEIB: I actually think they're voting to say here's the person I want to be president, because everybody thinks their vote is worth that much. But they also know that the way they vote determines who survives out of Iowa, New Hampshire and moves on, and perceptions matter in this game. For example, small example, a strong third place finish in Iowa by Marco Rubio would look a lot different than a weak third place finish by Marco Rubio in Iowa. So we'll see how that plays out, and the perception game after the decision really matters as well. [Fox News, Happening Now, 1/29/16]

Political Commentator Larry Sabato On Fox: “If [Rubio] Gets A Strong Third Out Of Iowa, It's Going To Give Him Some Extra Momentum In New Hampshire.” On the January 28 edition of Happening Now, guest Larry Sabato, who is the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, noted that Rubio “has been moving up steadily” and claimed that getting “a strong third out of Iowa” would give Rubio “some extra momentum in New Hampshire.” Sabato predicted that scenario would create “potential for a long, grinding battle between Trump, maybe Cruz, but also Rubio”:

JON SCOTT (HOST): Donald Trump and Ted Cruz seem to be positioned to finish one and two, or maybe, you know, vice versa. The question, I guess, is who comes in third in Iowa, right?

LARRY SABATO: Yeah. You know, your correspondent, John Roberts, is absolutely correct. Everybody is watching Marco Rubio. He did get endorsed by The Des Moines Register, which is a liberal paper, normally doesn't have that much influence with Republicans. But Rubio has been moving up steadily, carefully, a point here, a point there. If he gets a strong third out of Iowa, it's going to give him some extra momentum in New Hampshire. So we'll be looking to see whether he can finish second to Donald Trump there. If he does, you've got the potential for a long, grinding battle between Trump, maybe Cruz, but also Rubio. [Fox News, Happening Now, 1/28/16]

CNN's Manu Raju: “Something In The High Teens” Would Be “A Good Night” For The Rubio Campaign. On the January 30 edition of CNN Newsroom, correspondent Manu Raju reported that the Rubio campaign “wants to solidify its third-place standing” in Iowa. Raju then reasoned that a third place finish “in the high teens” would be a “good night” for the campaign:

MANU RAJU: The Rubio campaign clearly wants to solidify its third-place standing right now in the polls. Right now it looks like it's going to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz fighting for the one and two spot, but the Rubio campaign believes if they end up a strong number three, they will be able to make the case to the one party that they are the one candidate that can actually take on Cruz and Trump in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, in Nevada, in those SuperTuesday states. They want to have some separation between them and the governors in the race.

And what that really means, probably something in the high teens is a good night for them, something into the 20s. They would probably be ecstatic if they got there. If they were nipping at Ted Cruz' heels or Donald Trump's heels for number two that would be a very, very big night. But the low teens, that would be considered underperforming for them and it would be hard for them to make the case that we are the alternative to Trump and Cruz. [CNN, CNN Newsroom, 1/30/16, via Nexis]