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Did Cruz make the right play in Florida?

Posted at 3:23 PM, Mar 14, 2016

Marco Rubio has always been a long shot to win his home state of Florida. Not a single poll there since last July has shown the Florida senator overtaking GOP front runner Donald Trump. However, while Trump appears certain to win Tuesday’s primary, it seems to be Sen. Ted Cruz who is serving up the deathblow.

“Cruz is really going for the kill here,” said Charles Barrilleaux, chair of the political science department at Florida State University. “Everybody’s ambitious, everyone wants to win.”

Going into the Florida primary, Cruz, the number two candidate in the GOP campaign, could have approached the race in two very different ways. He could have sat back, stayed out of the state and perhaps let Rubio pull off a win by leveraging Cruz's leftover voter base. Then the two could have gone on and duked it out over the next few weeks with Trump holding far fewer delegates.

Or, Cruz could continue to campaign in Florida, denying Rubio potential access to a new crop of followers, and instead help hand the state directly to Trump.

So far it’s clear that he has chosen the latter.

“Cruz is campaigning here in Florida. He could have waited in the weeds, let Marco try to win the state and deny Trump the 99 delegates,” said Mac Stipanovich, former Florida executive director for the Reagan-Bush 1984 campaign. “Instead he is making a push in the state to push Marco out of the race and let Trump have the 99 delegates in the hopes that [Cruz] could gain the delegates later on.”

And it’s not that the Texas senator is trying to win the state for himself. In the past two weeks he only held two events in the state—one in Miami and one in Orlando--compared to Rubio’s daily meet-and-greets, rallies and press conferences. Instead, it all comes down to politics.

“Ted Cruz is not trying to win Florida, he’s trying to knee-cap Rubio so he can get it down to a three-person race. Ideally he wants to get it down to a two-person race,” said Ford O’Connell, former adviser to John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “Asking politicians to put the team ahead of their own personal self-interest is like asking a thief to stop stealing—he’s looking at it as protecting Ted Cruz—because he’s thinking that, ‘If we go to a contested convention, I won’t come out on top.’”

While it’s questionable if Cruz’s strategy could work in his favor—many strategists say the math simply isn’t there for him to win outright over Trump—it is successfully hindering Rubio.

The two most recent polls in the state show the two candidates within 3 to 8 points of one another. Trump on the other hand, is ahead of both by more than 20 points.

The reason Cruz’s presence in the race has been so hurtful to Rubio has a lot to do with both candidates' respective bases and backgrounds.

While Rubio has a long history in the state, having started out in politics as a city commissioner in Miami and moved up the ranks to senator, Cruz has more of a defined voter base that comes out to support him in every state.

“Rubio has no base to fall back on,” O’Connell said. “Trump has wiped every base of voters. Cruz has a mixture of the tea party constitutionalists and hardcore conservatives. Who does Rubio have? Establishments? Establishment is the big word of 2016, but no one can define it.”

The clearest base of voters that Rubio can pander to in Florida is latinos, a largely Cuban population that resides mostly in southern parts of the state.

But there’s a caveat there, too:  Cruz also is Cuban.

“With Ted Cruz in as well, he’s another Hispanic conservative going after the religious right, taking up very close to the demographic and ideological space that Rubio would be trying to get,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

The base made up of Republican Cuban voters also has been dwindling over the years. In Broward County, which encompasses the Ft. Lauderdale region, most are registered Democrats, which doesn’t help Rubio in Florida’s closed primary.

Then there’s the fact that Rubio rode to Washington largely through the help of the Florida Tea Party. But since then, he’s fallen out of their good graces.

“At one time Rubio was their darling. He was their favorite and he’s not anymore. He went to Washington and became one of the establishment just like the rest,” Jewett said. “Rubio has been in office and got tied to the Gang of Eight, this comprehensive immigration bill that tea partiers didn’t like. I don’t think he’s quite recovered from that.”

Instead, many of the tea party groups in the state are throwing their support behind Cruz and Trump.

While Rubio has been showing a decent showing among early voters in Florida this past weekend, pulling off a win Tuesday would be nothing short of a huge feat. In the meantime, Cruz will be waiting to see if his strategy pays off.

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