Marco Rubio launched his bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination with a bold promise that “yesterday is over,” an optimistic message from a young, charismatic son of Latino immigrants who many believed would be the face of the GOP’s future.
But Rubio’s team never anticipated a candidate like Donald Trump. And the Florida senator’s uneven performance on the campaign trail did little to convince Republican voters and donors that Rubio was the best alternative to the billionaire, even as party leaders clamored for one.
Rubio announced Tuesday he was suspending his campaign, seeing no path forward after failing to win his home state and the 99 delegates he desperately needed to emerge as a viable challenger to Trump.
FOR THE RECORD
10:24 p.m.: A previous version of this article said Rubio promised that “yesterday is gone.” He said “yesterday is over.”
“This year, we will not be on the winning side,” he said to supporters in Miami.
“America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami, and we should have seen this coming,” Rubio said, his voice hoarse from the final days of campaigning. “Look, people are angry and people are very frustrated.”
His failed campaign was a stinging defeat in a mostly charmed political rise, where success had come swiftly and often easily. He liked to boast that he’d never lost an election and rose earlier in his career to become the youngest state House speaker in Florida history.
Timing looked to be on Rubio’s side almost a year ago when he entered the presidential race from a Miami landmark known as the Ellis Island of the South.
His candidacy seemed tailor-made in response to the GOP’s post-2012 political autopsy, which concluded that the party’s future ability to win the White House depended on doing a better job attracting younger and more ethnically diverse voters beyond its base of older, white Americans.
The working-class son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio was considered an easy favorite among many in the Republican Party establishment. He was embraced on Capitol Hill as a fast-rising lawmaker who arrived at the Senate on the 2010 tea party wave, in stark contrast to a 2012 tea party arrival, Sen. Ted Cruz, who was reviled as a disruptive gate-crasher.
But the 2016 political environment turned out to be almost nothing like the one strategists envisioned. Positioning himself as neither a Bush nor a Clinton, Rubio was prepared to first topple his former mentor Jeb Bush in the GOP primary and then tackle Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Then came Trump. All the candidates have struggled to counter the New York businessman’s rise, but Rubio’s campaign was particularly slow to adjust, allowing losses to mount in Iowa and other early-voting states, then overcorrecting with trash-talking assaults on Trump that sullied his own brand.
The religious-minded Rubio tried to match Trump’s bullying with some of his own, blasting Trump’s “spray tan” and “small hands,” including a not-so-veiled reference to Trump’s genitalia, seen by many as a new low in presidential politics. Rubio later said he regretted the remarks because they had embarrassed his small children and did not reflect the person he wanted to be.
It all backfired anyway. Trump dismissed him as “Little Marco,” zeroing in on one of his biggest vulnerabilities: voters’ concerns that Rubio was too young and inexperienced to be president.
A high-profile debate gaffe in which Rubio repeated the same talking point verbatim four times only heightened such concerns. He came in fifth in New Hampshire, and opponents began showing up at his rallies dressed as “Rubio Robot.”
It all reinforced worries that Rubio was not ready. “Twenty years from now he’s probably going to be somebody,” Nick Stratton, a plumbing contractor, said at a Trump rally in South Carolina.
Rubio bounced back, but not nearly enough to catch up to Trump. His only victories came in nominating contests in Minnesota, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
As Florida approached, the senator’s team understood it was “Florida or bust,” as one fundraiser put it.
Because Rubio opted against running again for his Senate seat, his political future is uncertain. He has long been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in Florida, where he has a home in Miami with his wife and four school-age children.
His last days on the campaign trail were as much about winning Florida votes as burnishing his image as a future party leader.
On Tuesday, his voice unsteady amid interruptions from the crowd, Rubio tried to return to a note of optimism and rejected the politics of the front-runner he declined to name.
“I ask the American people: Do not give in to the fear. Do not give in to the frustration. We can disagree about public policy — we can disagree about it vibrantly, passionately — but we are a hopeful people and we have every right to be hopeful,” he said, calling Americans “the descendants of go-getters.”
Though Trump loomed large in Rubio’s stumble, many also cite strategy missteps in a campaign that at times seemed overly confident and insufficiently committed to the hard work of retail campaigning.
The senator relied on made-for-TV appearances and spent much of his time courting the suburban young families who Rubio’s advisors thought would be crucial to his success. Instead, angry GOP blue-collar voters drove the primaries, energized by Trump.
His past work on immigration reform legislation dogged his campaign, leading some skeptical Republicans to worry he was too lenient at a time when many preferred Trump’s proposals to build a wall along the Mexican border and block Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S.
Not quite nimble enough to adapt to the changed political environment, Rubio did become a better candidate, but he left too much undone in the early states to pave the way for his success in the later ones.