Before the Iowa caucuses, Marco Rubio supporters were spinning an elaborate-sounding tale about their plan to vault from third to first over the course of the first three primaries—notwithstanding Donald Trump’s prohibitive leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The so-called 3-2-1 strategy looks slightly less far-fetched in hindsight, now that Trump no longer seems unstoppable, and Rubio has proven he can weather concerted attacks well enough to perform respectably in Iowa. But it turns out the actual results there complicate the 3-2-1 theory, more than they help set it into motion.
The original strategy was premised in part on the expectation that Ted Cruz would underperform in Iowa, and thus fade in New Hampshire and South Carolina. As we now know, that didn’t happen. Pretty much the opposite happened. So Cruz is likely to hang tough or climb in the coming races. And even if Trump’s second-place Iowa finish precipitates a significant correction in the polls, his lead in New Hampshire as of yesterday was seriously imposing.
Absent a total Trump meltdown, Rubio will most likely need the field of also-rans to fade quickly and voters consolidate cleanly behind him if he’s to surpass Cruz before Tuesday. Otherwise, his 3-2-1 climb to victory will play out more like a 3-3-3 path to nowhere.