(Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
While there has been much ado about Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) recent drop in favorability among Republican voters, the storyline has certainly been overplayed by the media.
Rubio is the only Republican that is both considered a future presidential contender and is publicly leading the effort for immigration reform. (Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is believed to be working behind the scenes but has avoided public statements.) Media articles about politics often prefer to write about politicians as if they are heading in either one of two directions – up or down. The reality, though, is usually more complicated.
Here are three reasons Rubio should still be considered a front-runner to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
1. He's Still Popular With the Base
When looking at Rubio's drop in the polls, it is important to recognize that he is dropping from "very high numbers" down to just "high numbers."
His favorability among conservative Republicans dropped from 58 percent in August 2012, to 51 percent this month, according to Washington Post/ABC News polls. Rasmussen Reports polls show a 15 percentage points drop in favorability among all Republicans since February and a 10 percentage point drop since May. But even with that change, Rubio's favorability among Republicans is at 51 percent, by no means unpopular.
As polling expert Nate Silver pointed out, it was unlikely that Rubio's popularity would have remained as high as it was regardless of what he did on immigration reform.
"Had he stayed on the sidelines for immigration reform, Mr. Rubio's wide popularity among Republicans might have lasted longer, but it is unlikely it would have remained so high indefinitely. At some point, he would have been forced to take stands on other issues that divide the Republican establishment from the base. And if he runs for president in 2016, he will have to differentiate himself from other conservative candidates with stands on virtually every issue imaginable," Silver wrote.
2. Immigration Reform Can Help Him Win Moderates and Independents
Candidates do not have to be popular with the base to win the nomination anyway. This point is illustrated well by the last two Republican presidential candidates – John McCain and Mitt Romney. Neither of those candidates were popular with the Republican base but both were successful at securing the nomination.
By leading on immigration reform, Rubio can have the best of both worlds. He remains more popular with the base than McCain and Romney, and he can establish some credibility with moderate and independent voters – the types of voters he needs to win in open primary states.
3. He's Popular With Evangelicals
Rubio remains popular with evangelical Christians, an important part of the Republican base. He recently announced a desire to take the lead on a 20-week abortion ban, an issue of great concern for many evangelicals.
Also, evangelicals have been at the forefront of the effort for immigration reform. While white evangelicals are more divided on the issue, there is still a majority that support the most controversial part of the legislation – a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants. Support is even greater when the requirements for citizenship are mentioned in the poll question.