There was never much of a chance for Marco Rubio to become president. His road got bypassed by the Trump interstate. The motels got boarded up and the asphalt cracked apart. And he didn’t even have that road to himself, stuck in his lane behind fellow Floridian Who Buys All His Clothes At Costco Jeb Bush. They both ran on the "well golly, I think the Republican party is perfectly sustainable" platform, and the result was utter destruction. In a year where every candidate is falling over themselves to scream how anti-establishment they are, like rats jumping off a burning man-of-war, Rubio was chaining himself to the mast. He was banking on the old order to dictate the nominee. But it doesn’t do that anymore. It’s busy burning down.
The GOP has been in flagrant violation of fire codes for a while now, but it took Trump’s molotov cocktail to touch off an inferno. And a funny thing happened in all that firelight: Rubio started to look like he was all packaging and no product, like something out of one of those As Seen On TV stores. The box was real shiny, it claimed to address all the right problems, but when you took him out, you realized you didn’t need him in the first place.
The sales pitch was cute enough if you were a Republican donor, I guess. Marco Rubio, the perfect company man. Great hair, had the party line down pat. Only 44, young and inexperienced enough to allow for routine system updates. He looked like he did all the reading and got eight hours sleep before the big exam and still found the time for a protein-dense breakfast before taking his seat in the front row. He sounded so reasonable. The way Republican presidents used to sound -- mellow on the outside, cancerous on the inside. Rubio was presidential like Ronald Reagan’s Chesterfield ads -- "my candidate is the mild candidate." We don’t advertise cigarettes anymore.
Voters don’t want low tar and a smooth finish. They want unfiltered. They want the guy blowing off class to do donuts in the parking lot. They’ll never settle for the immaculately coiffed and emotionally unavailable valedictorian. Rubio ran his campaign like he was trying to haggle a research paper from an A- to an A+. He didn't have a sense of cool; he didn't look like he had any good dirty jokes. You couldn't use him as an excuse to entertain religious apocalypticism like with Trump. You couldn’t throw ironic pathos at him like you could with Jeb Bush. He set expectations low by calling a third place primary finish in Iowa a victory – "the moment they said would never happen" – and he held on long enough for it to almost seem like he believed it. Rubio had the GOP presidential campaign playbook memorized forwards and backwards in two languages, but it was the 2008 edition. And boy was it awkward to watch him figure that out.
So watching this campaign run out the clock down in Florida was about as much fun as being in the parking lot of a high school football game after the star quarterback tears an ACL. The first event I went to was a "homecoming meet and greet" at a park. Here's what it was like: You know how, on the Fourth of July, you never actually want to see fireworks, but you feel obligated to see them anyway because there's kids in the house and you don't want to just stay inside and day drink without a convenient social excuse? And you don't want to go to the convention center where they're actually doing the fireworks show, so instead you go to the elementary school with a good view of the convention center, and you knock around adjacent neighborhoods for half an hour looking for street parking? It was like that, but without fireworks.
The speech was supposed to start at 9:00 p.m. And he was late, of course, because why hurry to your own wake? But his supporters didn’t want Rubio to die, they wanted him to be president, so there was a lot of rationalizing his lateness going on. One woman in her fifties, who told me she’d been Rubio’s biggest fan since his Senate campaign, apologized for him like he was her own flesh-and-blood screwup middle child.
"Oh, he has us onboard already."
"If I was on the road that much, I wouldn't even be able to talk."
More excuses ricocheted tiredly as the scheduled 9 p.m. start time came and went.
"He must be dead ass tired."
"Poor guy, and he was just sick with the flu."
Reporters were going around putting people on the spot, asking if they thought Rubio could win, just rude as hell. It’s like crashing a funeral and asking if the deceased’s cooking was any good. Have some decorum.
The West Miami Recreation Center sounds like it might be a place that has, you know, an amphitheater or something. It's not. It's just a park. This was a presidential candidate and the media setting up their road crews at a regular damn park. There were a few hundred people there, but show up to one of these events in person and you rapidly realize how unimpressive a few hundred bodies look at a political rally. You've gotta pull thousands or it's depressing. Anything else looks like you undersold the gig, even if you didn't.
Cameras can make it look deceptively respectable. A shallow depth of field that blurs out the background can make a meager campaign rally look well-attended. Watching on TV, maybe, you could forget for a minute that Marco Rubio had to watch his presidential aspirations sputter into nothingness in a random park, a regular one, with slides and the spinning letters for the preschool kids.
As the crowd halfheartedly waited for their brokedown hero, I even heard one supporter guess which speech he was going to do. "He's going to do the same speech he did last week. It's cool, it's a good speech," the man said, using his indoor voice. He ended up being right, too. Everybody knew the set list.
Nobody seemed quite ready to give up on magical thinking Rubio into a win. I saw one guy, about 20, there with a girl. They both had Rubio signs, and the guy was very soft-spoken when he told the girl "oh, well, the polls I saw showed Trump can’t do it. He can’t be the nominee.
"The convention is just chaos! We can get in on the chaos! Rubio gets Florida and he’s going to, and then anything goes, OK?"
Every few minutes, the crowd would start chanting Rubio’s name out of what felt like local solidarity, compassion for the team captain being toted off on a stretcher. Then his tour bus rolled in, the house music cut out, and there he was, a half hour late, standing in the back of a Dodge Ram, telling people he was going to be the 45th president of these United States. The sound system didn't work. He had to use a bullhorn, which makes you look authoritative but sound like you’re asking for a cleanup in automotive.
"Don’t stay home," he implored. "Make sure no one stays home. We don’t know how close this is gonna be." But we did know, Monday night. It wasn’t going to be close at all.
Rubio stuck to the hits early, told his Horatio Alger story about humble beginnings and working hard. Then he told people to go get all their friends to vote. Then the big lies started.
"I can’t wait to stand on that stage in Cleveland, Ohio in July and accept the nomination for Republican candidate," he lied.
"And in November, we’re going to downtown Miami, on what’s supposed to be a really nice night, and thank the people of the United States for electing me the 45th president of the United States," he lied again.
"And I can’t wait until January, when I place my left hand on the Bible and my right hand in the air and take the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States," he lied once more in the truck bed.
Rubio sputtered and fizzled for a while longer, like a wet bottle rocket, shook a few hands, and then he literally disappeared into the crowd. Eventually, security told me he’d slunk off into an inconspicuous hidden car. The entire event had taken all of 30 minutes. The tour bus was a decoy, but nobody bothered to tell what remained of his fanbase. People stood outside it waiting for autographs long after he had gone.
By 10 p.m., the TV crews were packing up their cables and the crowd was drifting away. The park was mostly empty by the time Lee Greenwood’s "God Bless the USA" came over the PA. At one point I saw a dad clutching his little boy's hand. The child could not have been more than five. I didn't hear what he asked, but it made his dad lean down and say:
"Because we like him. Trump is not the type that we like."
Rubio’s concession speech the next night at Florida International University Arena, or more accurately its lobby, was just a formality after the plaintive last stand at that park in West Miami. Trump had swept every single county in Florida except Miami-Dade - 1,077,221 to 636,653 votes, 45.7 percent to 27 percent.
And Rubio, depleted and shell-shocked, told a small crowd of media and supporters that it was not God's plan for him to win. He was introspective and mournful. He recited 1 Chronicles 29:11 ("Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth"). If it was like anything, it was like a sermon delivered by a pastor whose wife walked out on him, full of grief and regret hidden behind workaday God-bothering.
And out of that string of moments emerged a trace or two of something previously unseen in the Rubio campaign: a personality. He didn't have to pretend he could be president anymore. He’d just lost his homecoming game by almost 20 points. He was allowed now to go home and nurse whatever remained of his soul.
In defeat it became obvious, at last, that Rubio knew he got exactly what he deserved out of this election cycle. He knew Trump was Pepsi and he was Crystal Pepsi. He knew voters weren’t buying him, or anything like him. He knew anger’s already won the year. There was almost some peace to it.
And when he said "everything that comes from God is good. God is perfect. God makes no mistakes," Rubio was certainly making a political move, swinging as hard as he could for the evangelical fence, but there was no nerve behind it. He just sounded shattered.
Later that night back in West Miami, I walked by an all-night diner wearing a novelty cowboy hat. It’s a conversation starter. A waiter on his cigarette break was staring me down. He asked me where I was from. I told him California. I asked where he was from. He told me he was a Miami native, that he had never left. He had scars on his face, about 40 but looked older, the sort of guy you glance at without judgment and think "he will not make it to 55. Something will get him before then." I asked what he thought of Florida’s fallen favorite sons.
"Jeb had all the money in the world. Look where it got him. He tried to get Rubio and then they just kicked each other out of the thing. Motherfuckers ate each other."
"What do you think of Trump, for real like," I said. He sighed.
"For real? Trump, I mean, look, as an American," he said, lighting another cigarette, "I think he'd be good. He'd be good for America. These Cubans – we can't pay for that. We can't let people think that's the game in this country. They have to go. We can't do it. Look, I can barely do this. I pay $1,200 for rent, it's not a good place, it's a shit place. $1,200 for shit. I can't help pay for the fucking Cubans. Rubio didn't know what to do about it. Trump has an idea! Fuck, let's try an idea! That's what I think. Trump would be good as an American."
Then he went back inside without saying goodbye, and he didn't flick his cigarette, he threw it against the wall as hard as he could, like a baseball.