Donald Trump is appealing to fed-up voters. Ted Cruz is wooing religious conservatives. Jeb Bush tried to appeal to establishment Republicans. Now Marco Rubio is pursuing a strategy to court suburban voters.
As time is running out in the GOP presidential primary to derail a Trump nomination, Rubio hopes to coalesce all Republican primary voters who haven’t or don’t want to vote for the New York billionaire. So far in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Rubio’s best headline has been that he is “surging.” Pretty quickly, he will have to surge into first place somewhere.
In a contest seemingly dominated by political segmentation, Rubio and his campaign advisers have chosen to chase suburbanites. Instead of seeking out enclaves of self-identified evangelical voters, Rubio is on the hunt for support in places like Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. He also is campaigning in suburban areas of Denver, Atlanta, Boston, Birmingham and Nashville in the lead-up to major primaries.
According to The Washington Post, Rubio’s “Ankeny Strategy” – Ankeny is a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa – is aimed at voters who relate to the Florida senator. “They can identify with his modest background, his young children and the student loans he had to pay off,” the Post reports. “There are Ankenys all over the country,” says Rich Beeson, Rubio’s deputy campaign manager.
Rubio's campaign points to the candidate’s strong showing in South Carolina’s two most populous counties, which delivered Rubio a narrow second-place finish over Cruz, thanks to successful outreach to suburban voters.
Rubio isn’t the first politician to see the value of suburban voters. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Rubio this week, followed that strategy to win the statehouse in a typically blue state.
The underlying Rubio message is that Trump’s appeal is limited, topping out at perhaps 35 to 40 percent of the GOP base. Rubio argues he has conservative credentials to win over Trump and Cruz partisans, while still appealing to swing voters in the suburbs.
Not that long ago, suburban areas such as Beaverton and Hillsboro were reliable Republican strongholds. But the political ground has shifted, making it harder for Republicans to hold on to legislative and congressional seats. Rubio eyes these potential swing areas as the real battleground for the White House this fall.
The Rubio suburban strategy appears to have more political leg than Bush’s failed approach of appealing to the so-called Republican establishment. This strategy also hints at why Rubio has been reluctant to joust publicly with Trump – he believes he can overtake Trump and weld together a broad coalition that includes his backers, many of whom have returned to the political conversation because of Trump.
Regardless of the merits of Rubio’s suburban strategy, he still has to win a primary somewhere, certainly in Florida, his home state, but somewhere else, too. It would seem, based on suburban demographics, his best chances are in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Colorado and Minnesota. Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia hold their primaries March 1, as part of the so-called SEC Primary. Colorado and Minnesota hold caucuses the same day. If Rubio doesn’t snag a win in one or more of those states, his suburban strategy may have hit a fatal roadblock on Trump’s road to the nomination.