You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Didn’t Marco Rubio Knock Out John Kasich?

The Florida senator had the money—and the material—to bombard his establishment rival with attack ads. Instead, he ignored Kasich altogether.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When Marco Rubio exited the presidential race on Tuesday after being flattened in Florida by Donald Trump, the political world was puzzled: How had John Kasich, a politician with little personal magnetism and a record as Ohio governor that would repel most hardline conservatives, become the last establishment contender standing against Trump and Ted Cruz?

Rubio himself is largely to blame. He ignored the Ohio governor for months, and even after Kasich finished second in New Hampshire with his “prince of light” act, Rubio failed to attack him—choosing instead to throw millions of dollars into ineffectively hitting Cruz and Trump. Of all the many strategic blunders that Rubio’s campaign committed, this may have been the single most inexplicable.

Unlike Trump, who has proven immune to almost every attack leveled at him, Kasich has two big, whopping strikes against him in conservatives’ eyes that Rubio could have exploited successfully. Kasich was a senior executive at Lehman Brothers from 2001 through 2008, when the firm collapsed, sending global markets into a tailspin—hardly an attractive resume item in a populist year like this one. And as governor, Kasich made the controversial decision to expand Medicaid for 650,000 new Obamacare enrollees in Ohio—a capital offense among Republican voters who prize ideological purity above all else.

Two of the other candidates competing in the “establishment lane,” Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, wielded those liabilities in attack ads after Kasich shot up in the New Hampshire polls in January—but only briefly. Christie released an ad hitting the Ohio governor for his Lehman Brothers connections: “As a banker at Lehman Brothers, a Wall Street bank that failed, Kasich made millions while taxpayers were forced to bail out Wall Street.” Right to Rise, the super PAC bankrolling almost all the ads for Bush, slammed Kasich for expanding Medicaid and cutting jobs at a local Air Force base in Ohio. Immediately before the New Hampshire primary, a nonprofit called the American Future Fund also released an ad attacking Kasich for supporting common core and increasing taxes (Both Trump and Kasich have alleged that the group is somehow affiliated with the Rubio campaign, though that remains unproven). 

These were strong ads, undermining Kasich’s shtick as a regular ol’ guy with working-class roots. But the attacks ended there. The other establishment contenders engaged in a “circular firing squad” that bruised them all, except for Kasich, who left New Hampshire with a strong second-place finish—and with the fiction that he was the only genuinely nice candidate in this race intact.

Even after New Hampshire, the Rubio campaign failed to recognize the Kasich threat. In the month after New Hampshire, Rubio rarely, if ever, said a word about Kasicheven after Bush and Christie dropped out, leaving Kasich as the only other pretender to the establishment throne. No attack ads, and no sharp words during the debates—where, once again, Kasich was allowed to stay safely above the fray. 

When Rubio finally acknowledged that Kasich might be trouble, it was long after Super Tuesday—and far too late to save his sinking campaign. Conservative Solutions announced on March 9 that it would air an ad in Florida that attacked Kasich for increasing state spending and levying taxes on “cars, laundry, lawns, gyms, internet, phones, repairs” and so on—a curious decision, since the Ohio governor never campaigned in Rubio’s home state, and was drawing less than 10 percent in polls leading up to March 15. Rubio was simultaneously encouraging his supporters to vote for Kasich in Ohio to deny Trump that state’s delegates, which probably undermined the super PAC’s efforts to attack Kasich in Florida. 

Rubio could have finished off Kasich before last Tuesday. He certainly had the funds: The Rubio campaign reported in January that it had ended 2015 with nearly $10.4 million cash on hand, while Conservative Solutions, his main super PAC, had $13.9 million to spend. The reluctance to hit Kasich is doubly strange considering that TV ads were the central component of Rubio’s campaign all along: He relied almost entirely on them to get his message across to voters in the early states, in lieu of investing in field organizers and campaign offices.

The lead-up to Super Tuesday was Rubio’s best chance to pounce on Kasich—particularly in Virginia, where the Florida senator ended up losing by only 30,000 votes to Trump, while Kasich won 95,000 votes. Had Rubio poked holes in Kasich’s “prince of light and hopepersona with stories about his notoriously hot temper, and gone after him on Medicaid and Lehman Brothers, he might have added Virginia to his victory in Minnesota on Super Tuesday. That would have given the Florida senator some semblance of momentum heading to Florida, and put him in a decent position to win the eight states or territories he would need, according to GOP rules, to be nominated at a brokered convention.

Instead, the Republican establishment is left with Kasich as its standard-bearer: a candidate who not only has an anything but purely populist or conservative record, but also has little money or campaign organization. Kasich lacks the photogenic panache and occasional eloquence of Rubio. He has none of the wealthy donors whom Bush and Rubio rallied to their cause. And so far, he’s won just one state—his own. 


New TV commercials flooded the airwaves leading up the crucial super (duper) Tuesday primaries on March 15—and a few new ones have aired since, targeting the Arizona primary on March 22. We’ve analyzed the ten most notable spots from this week and last, and listed the rest below. You can see every presidential spot that’s aired in this campaign cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

Marco Rubio: “Basic” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? Conservative Solutions, a super PAC supporting Marco Rubio

Reach: Aired in Florida

Impact: Conservative Solutions was really reaching for a catchy tagline in this attack ad on Ohio Governor John Kasich. The commercial begins with the awkward line: “Here’s the basic on John Kasich.” Why not say “the basics on John Kasich,” rather than throwing grammatical correctness to the wind? 

Other new ads from Conservative Solutions: “Orgullo,” “Closest” 

Donald Trump: “John Kasich: All Talk No Action” 

Type: Attack

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

Reach: Aired in Ohio

Impact: This ad likely had little impact in Ohio, where voters were already well aware that their governor worked for Lehman Brothers before the 2008 financial crisis. Furthermore, the ad was only up on Ohio television for a few hours before New Day for America, the super PAC supporting John Kasich, got it removed, pointing out that the spot did not, as required by law, include the “paid for by Donald Trump” disclaimer at the end. Trump usually puts his disclaimers at the beginning of his ads, but he had never gotten in trouble for that choice before. 

Donald Trump: “Corrupt Marco” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? The Trump campaign

Reach: Aired in Florida 

Impact: This ad dredged up old accusations that have dogged Rubio since his days in the Florida state House: that he switched a vote after selling his house to the mother of a lobbyist, and that he used GOP credit cards for personal expenses. These allegations have been bandied around for years without materially damaging Rubio; most likely, Trump just wanted something to make it look like he was fighting back against Rubio and the other outside groups that were pouring millions into campaign ads aimed at stopping Trump in Florida. 

John Kasich: “Rise” 

Type: Biographical ad 

Who Paid for It? The Kasich campaign

Reach: Aired in Ohio

ImpactWith its images of Ohioans taking the first steps on the moon and inventing the lightbulb, this uplifting ad is classic John Kasich—reassuring, uplifting, and optimistic. By repeating the words “we” and “our,” the narrator reminds viewers that Kasich is one of them. 

Ted Cruz: “Corporate Welfare King” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Keep the Promise I, a super PAC supporting Ted Cruz

Reach: Aired in Florida

Impact: Ted Cruz famously campaigned against corn subsidies in Iowa, and in this ad, he took on the big sugar industry in Florida with an attack aimed at Marco Rubio. The message itself is a little hard to follow: First the narrator says that Rubio gives tax dollars to billionaires, then he says that Big Sugar bankrolls his campaign, and lastly he asserts that Rubio and Hillary Clinton are the same kind of politician. But the ad does have some nifty slow-motion shots of sugar being poured into white drifts that makes it look a little like this scene from Scarface.  

Other new ads from Keep the Promise I: “Works for You,” “Marco’s Pathway,” “Marco Rubio Absent On Defense” 

Our Principles PAC: “Quotes” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? Our Principles PAC, an unaffiliated Republican PAC devoted to attacking Donald Trump

Reach: Aired in Florida

Impact: Our Principles PAC and several other #NeverTrump groups bombarded the Sunshine State with attack ads assailing Trump for his failed business endeavors, like Trump University and the Trump Tower in Tampa. But this may have been their most savage attempt to sink his campaign. That said, Trump supporters are primarily men, which makes you wonder whether this commercial—which scrolls through some pretty repugnant things that Trump has reportedly said about women in the past—would have done much to deter his base. 

Other new ads from Our Principles: Outsourcer,” “Success,” “Fraud,” “Unifier” 

Bernie Sanders: “Stood with American Workers” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Ohio and Illinois

Impact: This ad latched onto the argument that Sanders used to pull off a startling upset in Michigan on March 8: that international trade deals like the TPP are responsible for the job losses throughout the Rust Belt. The ad lists the numbers of jobs that each recent trade deal cost American workers. But the problem with commercials that throw a slew of figures at viewers is that you never really know where the figures are coming from, or exactly how they relate to you. 

Bernie Sanders: “Tenemos Familias” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

ReachAired once, nationwide on Univision at 8:48 p.m., Thursday, March 10

Impact: The Sanders campaign excels at ads like this one: longer videos, beautifully shot, featuring a charismatic narrator. Sanders previously used this format in an ad called “It’s Not Over,” which featured Eric Garner’s daughter talking about the candidate’s commitment to racial justice. These commercials are more poignant and memorable than an ordinary campaign ad. They leave a lasting impression—even though this ad only aired once.

Bernie Sanders: “Bull” 

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Sanders campaign

Reach: Aired in Arizona

Impact: Both Democratic candidates are doubling down on Arizona, releasing new campaign ads targeting the state before its primary next Tuesday. In this one, Sanders goes after Wall Street, playing on the fact that Arizonans were especially hard hit in the housing crisis. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona congressman, is a persuasive spokesperson for Sanders because he diverges slightly from the usual talking points about Wall Street and lets his anger with financial executives shine through with lines like, “They know they’re not getting bull from him,” and “You’ve not only stood up to them, you’ve gotten in their face.” 

Other new ads from the Sanders campaign: Work of His Life,” “Transformative Change,” “Better Possibilities” 

Hillary Clinton: “Better” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign 

Reach: Aired in Arizona

Impact: In contrast to the militant overhaul of Wall Street that Sanders promises in his Arizona ad, Clinton offers a more straightforward pledge in hers: I’ll make schools better (also, I enjoy hugging kids). It illustrates the divide between Sanders voters, who, like Grijalva in “Bull,” are really angry, and Clinton voters, who want to check off more centrist agenda items like preschool for every child and reforms to the student-loan system. 

Other new ads from the Clinton campaign: Valentia” 

At the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive, you can view this week’s other ads: 

The Cruz campaign: “Looking Out,” “Always Has”  

American Future Fund: “Trump Always Puts Himself Ahead of the American People,” “Cliff,” “The Best Words,” “Tom Hanton,” “Michael Waltz” 

New Day for America: “Hinge” 

Stand for Truth: “Threat”