What killed Marco Rubio's presidential dreams? His own botched attempts at immigration reform.
Marco Rubio is out of the presidential race. And Donald Trump is still the Republican frontrunner.
Trump's shellacking of Rubio in the Florida primary was humiliating for the Florida senator. But it might be even worse for his party. Plenty of Republicans sympathetic to the recently departed candidate think so.
Rubio exits the race with the highest favorables, highest numbers on honesty/trustworthiness, and the best numbers against Hillary.
— Nick Jacob (@nicktjacob) March 16, 2016
That's not all, however. By casting aside Rubio in favor of Trump, some worry that the party has passed up an opportunity for a Latino breakthrough and instead embraced a candidate who could be as devastating to the party's long-term relationship with the Latino community as Barry Goldwater was to the Republican share of the African-American vote.
They may be right. But the fatal decision wasn't made by Florida primary voters Tuesday. It was made by Rubio himself when he embraced the Gang of Eight in 2013.
Many pundits' Rubio postmortems focus on important flaws in his campaign. The freshman senator bristles at comparisons to Barack Obama, but his team clearly thought big speeches and moments — like Obama's "red states, blue states" keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention — would make him a star and deliver him the nomination.
Consequently, they paid insufficient attention to fundamentals like on-the-ground organizing and pursued a strategy that ignored the importance of early-state victories. Like many other 2016 Republican candidates, Rubio planned for a race against Jeb Bush and got one defined by Donald Trump.
But the Gang of Eight was really the issue that made all the other miscalculations possible. It's what allowed Ted Cruz to get to Rubio's right in the first place, making Iowa and South Carolina places where he could exceed carefully managed expectations but not win. It's what cost Rubio his Tea Party darling status and forced him to wait for the few Republican primaries with a large Latino vote to make his stand. And it's what made Rubio so unsuited for a campaign dominated by Trump's nationalism.
If Rubio hadn't teamed up with some of the Senate's most liberal Democrats on immigration, what issues would Cruz have used to argue he was more conservative than Rubio? He'd likely have been reduced to arguing that Rubio was insufficiently libertarian, as Rand Paul tried to do with little success.
Rubio couldn't get away with his immigration apostasy as easily as George W. Bush or John McCain did, or the way Mitt Romney survived RomneyCare. He needed conservative votes more than Romney or McCain had. Bush was running against a more liberal McCain in 2000, not a Cruz or a Trump.
More importantly, Rubio could have offered his party a way out on immigration. Neither the 1986 amnesty signed into law by President Ronald Reagan nor the 40 percent increase in legal immigration signed by President George H.W. Bush noticeably helped Republicans do better with Latinos.
For every George W. Bush who over-performed with Hispanics, there was a pro-immigration McCain or Jack Kemp on the GOP ticket whose share of the Latino vote was closer to Romney's dismal 2012 showing.
Immigration is often vastly overrated as an issue that motivates Latinos. But when immigration is framed as a referendum on Latinos' place in American society, it can be a powerful motivator.
Democrats keep tricking Republicans into choosing between being on the wrong side of that referendum from a Latino perspective or being on the wrong side of immigration policy from the perspective of the conservative base. Like those famous coin tosses that award Hillary Clinton delegates, it's heads I win, tails you lose.
Rubio had an opportunity to change the terms of the debate. He won 55 percent of Florida Latinos running as an enforcement-first candidate in the 2010 Senate race, 10 points better than Charlie Crist (25 percent) and the official Democratic nominee (20 percent) combined.
Rubio was a symbol of American acceptance of the Latino role in our society while at the same time someone who could criticize, as he did while announcing he was suspending his campaign, the view that "if you're against illegal immigration that makes you a bigot."
Instead Rubio became the face of amnesty in the Republican Party while an aging white billionaire given to insensitive remarks became the orange face of immigration control.
It's a Hobson's choice Republicans could have avoided, but in the end it was a choice Rubio made.