Marco Rubio is projected to have picked up no delegates from Tuesday night’s primary contests, a culmination of his campaign's remarkable recent slide that leaves him hobbled heading into the pivotal Florida primary on Tuesday.
The disappointing results reinvigorated calls for Rubio to drop out of the race — and rumors that his advisers were considering it.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who has vocally opposed Donald Trump but refrained from choosing between Rubio and Ted Cruz, called for Rubio to drop out in a blog post published shortly after midnight on Wednesday.
“Marco Rubio had a terrible night with virtually no delegates won at all. If Rubio were to win Florida next week, an increasingly unlikely proposition, even those 99 delegates would not put him close to Ted Cruz,” he wrote. “The field needs to clear for Cruz.”
The results trickling in were so grim — single-digit, fourth-place finishes in Michigan and Mississippi; mid-teens for third place in Hawaii and Idaho — the typically prolific Rubio press team went radio silent on Tuesday night, with the first official post-primary response coming from Communications Director Alex Conant at 4:30 a.m. in the form of a tweet swatting down drop-out rumors.
“This is 100% false. Marco is only candidate who can stop Trump in Florida & we are determined to do so,” he tweeted, in response to a CBS report that Rubio’s campaign is “engaged in deep conversations about future of his presidential campaign” after Tuesday night’s primaries.
The finish was particularly damaging because it undermines his explanation for his poor performance this past week — that, as he said in Puerto Rico on Saturday, “this map only gets better for us as we move forward in some of the other states.”
It also underscores doubts about his stated campaign strategy to “play the delegate math,” as he said Saturday, and to campaign last-minute in favorable regions of a state hoping for a quick boost.
After campaigning in Boise, he came in third in that county with 16 percent of the vote, well short of winner Ted Cruz’s 40 percent; and he came in second but took just 29 percent of the vote in the county surrounding Idaho Falls, where he made his other Idaho campaign stop this weekend.
And perhaps most problematic for the candidate, his fruitless Tuesday night could make it tougher going forward for his campaign to make the case that his persistence in the race helps deny Donald Trump the nomination by siphoning off delegates from the frontrunner.
Rubio and his team have argued that Trump has no path to the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination outright, and some within the GOP have said in recent weeks the only way to keep Trump from winning is to drive him to a brokered convention by purposely fracturing the field with all four remaining candidates staying in.
But Rubio winning no delegates makes it that much easier for his opponents to argue he's only fracturing the anti-Trump vote.
The stakes could arguably not have been higher for Rubio in Florida prior to Tuesday night’s contests, as his campaign is framing it as a must-win state that will put him back on the map with its 99 delegates and reinvigorate his struggling campaign.
But the odds almost certainly get tougher now, as Rubio will have to reconcile the dissonance of his campaign spin in recent weeks with the reality on the ground in key primary states as he argues to Florida voters that he's the only candidate in the state that can defeat Trump.
His campaign looks likely to dismiss Tuesday night's results as a planned wash because they've focused all of their time and resources on Florida in the final push.
That was essentially the case they made in their lone communication with the public Tuesday night — a fundraising email, signed by Rubio himself, telling supporters to ignore that night's primaries and keep their eyes on the prize.
"As today’s voting results come in, the media will be focused on that, but one week from today, Floridians will go to vote, and deliver the winner the biggest single delegate haul of this entire campaign: 99 delegates," he wrote.