The Florida primary was do or die for Marco Rubio.
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And almost the second that the polls closed in the state Tuesday night, the outcome was clear.
All through this election cycle, the freshman senator sold himself as the one candidate who could unite and grow the party, yet he struggled to secure all but a few primary wins. Rubio argued that it was delegate count that mattered, and that wins would only start to matter once the primary got to winner-take-all states, including Florida. And he was confident, he said, that by then he would be winning. The calendar would then only get better for his campaign, he said, and voters in the later states would be more likely to vote for him than those in Super Tuesday states.
In doing so, Rubio raised expectations for himself in Florida. He consistently argued that he would win the Sunshine State and neither he nor his advisers would engage in hypothetical scenarios that had him losing there. Ohio Gov. John Kasich suggested he would step aside if he couldn’t win his home state. The pressure only mounted for Rubio -- if he couldn’t win his home state and had barely secured any wins, how would he make the case that he could stop Donald Trump and unite the party?
Publicly, the Rubio campaign kept a straight face -- through the end, Rubio was adamant he would win, claiming up until the last day that he was looking ahead to later states, “irrespective” of the outcome in Florida. But on the ground, it was obvious something was up.
In Hialeah earlier this week, the Rubio team was only able to fill the end-zone of a football stadium. The campaign estimated about 700 people showed -- just a few weeks ago, Rubio had filled a 7,000 person stadium in Georgia.
In the lead-up to Tuesday's primary, Rubio campaigned tirelessly across the state, from Miami to the I-4 corridor further north, and back. But instead of filling hotel ballrooms and high school gymnasiums, like he had done after South Carolina, Rubio was stopping by smaller diners and coffee shops.
Poll after poll showed him trailing Trump by double digits. In the end, Trump prevailed over Rubio by 18 percentage points.
Rubio said he was an underdog, that he accepted that. He said he had won races in Florida before and that he would do it again. He hoped to repeat the comeback he had pulled off in his 2009 in Senate campaign.
Though the campaign had remained mum about its ground game in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, in Florida “Team Marco” was busy touting its efforts. The campaign had 10 field offices, and over 30 staffers. One staffer tweeted that the campaign had made over 350,000 calls and knocked on 8,300 doors in a week.
The pro-Rubio PAC Conservative Solutions spent over $13 million on ads in the state (both attacking Rubio’s opponents and supporting its candidate). Ads informed voters that a vote for Cruz and Kasich was a vote for Trump, as Rubio was the only one who’d be able to beat Trump in Florida.
In the end, Cruz still won 17.1 percent of the vote in Florida. Kasich got 6.8 percent.
Back home in West Miami on Monday for one last rally before the big day, Rubio urged the mostly Hispanic crowd gathered there to get out and vote.
“If this community doesn’t vote in historic numbers, I don’t know if I will be able to win,” he said in Spanish.
At 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday at Rubio’s Miami headquarters, volunteers were already busy making calls, busing people to polling locations, and heading to precincts to try to sway undecided voters. But it would be too little too late -- Rubio’s home county of Miami-Dade would be the only one he would win.
“There’s nothing more you could have done,” Rubio told his supporters on Tuesday evening. “While we are on the right side, this year we will not be on the winning side.”
Giving his concession speech, Rubio was joined by his young family onstage. His youngest son, Dominick, is just 8. Throughout his speech, Rubio repeatedly used the term “this year” -- perhaps a reminder that he’ll only be 48 years old by the next presidential election cycle.