Did one robotic moment in a single debate really bring down Marco Rubio in New Hampshire, probably finishing him off nationally? Unlikely.
It's difficult to believe that voters would turn on a candidate over one gaffe—yet, somehow, it can also make perfect sense in this cycle. Either way, let's stop pretending 2016 voters are concerned about authenticity. What they're really asking of politicians is for better acting while delivering canned lines. Because they're all canned lines.
Nearly every candidate is a talking-point-spewing automaton. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz—and even much of what Donald Trump says—is prefabricated, tested and constructed to appeal to whatever subsection of the electorate they hope to entice. The most talented candidates can repeat those lines, jokes and touching anecdotes with the same bogus earnestness every single time. This is their real talent. I mean, even Trump—probably the only top-tier candidate regularly going off script—strings together many of the same absurdities in mind-numbing platitudinous loops, and his fans eat it up.
Still, there's no question that Rubio failed to deliver on this front last week. And while he's no more prone to offer calculated responses than is Clinton or Sanders, Rubio let the political world create a caricature. All the usual suspects joined in, because, whether you like him or not, Democrats fear Rubio more than they do any other Republican.
The robot talking point was regurgitated in dozens of articles, a million tweets and by political cartoonists. Activists, lacking basic self-respect, began following Rubio around in robot outfits. The Washington Post explained what it all meant: "What Marco Rubio's robotic debate performance reveals." Well, it probably reveals that we—pundits, bloggers, media and probably most voters—like to turn candidates into one-dimensional cartoon characters who can be easily mocked, categorized, memed and dispensed.
Caricatures are easier to hate, and also easier to support. Trump the brash fighter. Mitt Romney the out-of-touch job killer. Cruz the Machiavellian meanie. Jeb the awkward establishmentarian. Bernie the pure-hearted ideologue. Rubio the robot. You know how it works.
While this line of attack, brought on by his own performance, almost certainly had something to do with his showing in New Hampshire, I'm not fully sold on the debate theory. Whatever you make of Rubio's positions—and I'm not crazy about plenty of them—he's an impressive politician. According to CNN, voters broke away from Rubio at the end, but exit polls (and you can take them for what they are) show that while the debate mattered to many voters, Rubio fared only slightly worse than most other Republicans.
Rubio's problems are far deeper than some flub. For starters, he seems to believe that if he's perceived as the most electable GOP contender in the general, rank-and-file conservatives will come to him as they have often done in similar situations in the past. Well, 2016 doesn't work that way. This is an election about grievances and anger, not expedient positioning.
Other than his third place "win" in Iowa, Rubio has done nothing to distinguish his candidacy. His middling poll numbers have never suggested a clear path through the crowded moderate/establishment/governors field. In his own weird way, Trump has clogged this "moderate" path. Bush and Chris Christie, theoretically the closest ideologically to Rubio, have worked to sink him. And they probably have. No Republican has ever lost Iowa and New Hampshire and won the nomination.
A bigger problem, as James Poulos pointed out the other day, is that the trust issue is too much to overcome.
Rubio, like Barack Obama before him, has been running for president since the day he joined the Senate. The guy has a lot going for him, but he disastrously misread the mood of the country with the bipartisan reform bill on immigration. In the Obama/tea party era, you can be a principled senator who attempts to get things done (and Rubio was almost certainly a sincere believer in immigration reform), or you can try to be president. You can't do both. For many conservatives, immigration is the most pressing economic, political and cultural issue the nation faces. They can absolve you of wrongdoing if you were a tepid supporter of amnesty; not if you're part of the gang trying to push through the bill. Robot or not.
In his New Hampshire concession speech, Rubio showed some humility, admitted he had a bad debate, and promised that it would never happen again. Then he launched into another prefabricated, message-heavy speech, because that's what good politicians do. They're disciplined. But if Rubio has a chance—and it's a long shot—he'll have to alter the perceptions about his messaging. It's the difference between ending up as Dan Quayle or President George W. Bush. But even if he accomplishes that, it seems unlikely he can overcome his history and the country's mood. Not in 2016.