Can you claim momentum if you only finished third?
Most people would say no, but it’s the big question facing Marco Rubio following the Iowa caucus.
Why does it matter? Because it defines whether Rubio continues to play it safe or if he decides to go for the jugular.
The safe option is to carry on as he has done. Allow Trump and Cruz to keep whacking each other and focus on getting his ground game in place and continuing to build a steady stream of delegates, hopefully pulling off a few wins.
This strategy relies on a belief in his long-term sticking power and a confidence in Cruz and Trump getting weaker not stronger over time. It’s the safe option and one which would be hard to fault the Rubio campaign for.
But, it cedes control of the story to the other men. There’s nothing wrong with being the tortoise in a marathon, but it does mean the campaign narrative will continue to be dictated by his opponents.
Under this approach Rubio just carries on what he’s doing and hopes that New Hampshire result is either the same or better for him. He doesn’t do anything flashy or suddenly ratchet up spending, but instead bides his time.
This can’t last for ever. At some point Rubio needs to set out why he should win — the longer he plays the long game, the more important, but also more difficult this becomes.
The Big ‘Mo’
Or, the Rubio campaign can decide this is our moment. We’ve exceeded expectations, Trump has fallen short and Cruz can’t carry the country.
To do this, the Rubio camp effectively has to decide to go all-in. They need to trumpet their success at every opportunity and gamble on the GOP establishment swinging all their weight behind his campaign.
Why do this? Because it could win you the race before it even gets going.
Trump’s support has proven to be brittle and the party are crying out for someone who isn’t Cruz to be the candidate. If Rubio plays his cards right he can eliminate the rest of the field and make this a straight shoot out between him and Cruz — a shootout he has to be considered favourite in.
This approach involves a sudden flurry of activity — big media spend on positive adverts about why Rubio is the only sensible choice, along with a touting of his credentials. Negative attacks will support this, but should focus on making Cruz and Trump two badpeas in a pod.
This would be complemented by a media stampede — primarily through surrogates. Rubio’s credentials will be shouted about from every street corner, with as many different GOP faces as possible describing him as the best shot for winning back the White House.
If Rubio does this right and the GOP is willing to back him, it will force the second and third tier candidates out of the race. They’ll have no momentum, no backing and won’t even be considered worthy of a mention.
So what will he do? I suspect we’ll see bets hedged until after New Hampshire. If he can come first or second there it confirms he has the momentum and it’s time to switch to all gun’s blazing. Another third place will likely lead to him settling in for the long game and a strong focus on accumulating delegates.