The Best-Laid Free Media Plan of Marco Rubio

On Tuesday morning, just as polls were opening across the 11 Super Tuesday states, Terry Sullivan, Marco Rubio’s campaign manager, invited donors to the campaign’s Capitol Hill headquarters to give them an early look at the future. Sullivan’s PowerPoint presentation included a section entitled “March Delegate Math Projections,” which laid out three possibilities of where the Republican nominating contest could end up by the end of the month. One scenario envisioned the current five­man race, with candidates moving forward at their existing support levels. As if a corrective to what he conceded would be a lugubrious night, Sullivan promised rosier possibilities ahead.

Two miles away, at the downtown Washington office of Øptimus, the Washington consulting firm to which Rubio has outsourced his data operation, a large spreadsheet titled “March Madness” quantified just how bad things could get before they got any better. Partners Scott Tranter and Brian Stobie had put in place a system to monitor Rubio’s standing in each of the 107 congressional districts nationwide whose results that month could have an impact on delegate allocation. It amounted to a massively dispersed survey project, simultaneously polling voters in six times as many as districts are typically contested in any given November. By Monday morning, it was clear that any good news was likely to come from Minnesota.

The daily reports that Øptimus returned to Rubio’s headquarters had informed nearly every important decision the campaign had made in the week leading up to Super Tuesday. Rubio undertook separate trips to Arkansas, two days apart, because his analysts spotted adjacent districts where he might be able to crawl into second place, a position that would ensure a delegate from each. When Rubio was booked to spend time in a satellite studio, an Øptimus analysis of which media markets carried the greatest opportunity for pivotal wins guided the campaign’s press office to offer the senator as a guest to television stations in Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Nashville and Knoxville. Even the candidate’s declivitous descent into dick jokes was guided by a rigorously quantitative determination of the most effective way for Rubio to reach his targeted voters.

Until this week, those tools were all deployed in the service of still trying to earn Rubio the 1,238 delegates necessary to win the Republican nomination. But by Wednesday morning that outcome had grown effectively impossible. Rubio’s analysts believe they have emerged from Super Tuesday with a total of 115 delegates in hand. Even the most fanciful plot that Sullivan was able to conjure, in which Rubio overtook Cruz in delegates by the end of March, left Rubio lagging Donald Trump significantly, 570 to 404. That would not make Rubio the Republican nominee, but it would be enough deny Trump the party’s nomination on the convention’s first ballot.

As Sullivan’s presentation demonstrated, Rubio’s advisers have already begun to see Super Tuesday as little more than a dry run for a very different springtime slog than they had once envisioned. The Rubio campaign will now on rely Øptimus’s sophisticated delegate ­calculating operations not to ensure its candidate’s nomination but to prevent another’s. A candidate who had arrived at a free­ media strategy by rigorous methodology found himself displaced by another who had arrived at his by instinct alone, and who turned out to be the greatest free ­media candidate American politics has ever seen.

The Blueprint

In late 2014, Øptimus published a PDF on its website that appeared to be a strong contender for the year’s dullest political­science monograph. The 271­-page report was an unusually bland production from a firm whose proudly impish founders named all their computer servers after Transformers characters, with scholarly formatting and a deadly title to match: “The American Electorate: A Contemporary Study of Selected States.”

Anyone who understood the document’s purpose would understand why it had not been packaged to receive wide notice. Credited to the Conservative Solutions Project, a nonprofit organization that had been founded to back Rubio’s candidacy, “The American Electorate” was a skeleton key to the early Republican primary electorate to be shared by Rubio’s campaign and the super­PAC expected to support it. By making the document publicly available on a consulting firm’s website, the research could serve as a point of common reference for entities that were forbidden from directly coordinating with one another. (Spending tax-­free funds on such electoral research was an apparently novel use of a “social welfare” organizations that the group elude disclosure under campaign­ finance laws.)

The analysts who had produced the report had been an essential part of Rubio’s presidential ambitions from the earliest planning sessions. Øptimus was one of several new firms hatched to satisfy the newly ­stoked appetites of a Republican political class jarred by reports of the Democrats’ methodological supremacy. Co­founders Stobie and Tranter had first worked together conducting electoral experiments on behalf of the Charles Koch Foundation, a research arm of the political network associated with Koch and his brother David. When they launched the firm, in 2013, a third partner who had served as direct ­mail vendor to Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, Chris Faulkner, introduced them to Sullivan, a South Carolina general consultant tasked with laying the groundwork for a Rubio presidential campaign should the first-­term Florida senator choose to pursue one.

The real value in “The American Electorate” that the work generated was not in the data itself, but in the year­long endeavor that lay behind it. For the “selected states” covered in the report—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and Florida—Øptimus had conducted a large­-scale polling project linked to voter ­registration records. To pull it off, the firm’s engineers set to work developing a data infrastructure that could support a presidential candidacy. It was a project, according to Tranter, designed toward “building a system to conform to the decision-making process of a chaotic campaign.”

Throughout last fall, in coordination with Rubio’s attorneys, Stobie assembled a massive spreadsheet on which each state’s arcane (and sometimes ambiguous) delegate rules were translated into a series of mathematical functions designed to allow campaign to make fine ­grained decisions about where to put its resources in order to maximize delegates. Ultimately, Øptimus decided to track Rubio’s standing in 231 congressional districts, in some cases sampling voters in areas where as few as several thousand of them might vote.

No Door-­Knocking

In their duel for second place, Cruz and Rubio had similarly sophisticated targeting operations, but put to very different uses. While Cruz’s analysts saw that as the first step toward disaggregating the electorate into segments that could receive targeted communication—separating “timid traditionalists” from “stoic traditionalists,” for example —Rubio had all but abandoned individualized contact by Super Tuesday. Throughout the year, the campaign had made only symbolic investments in field operations—enough to convince the press and local party figures that he was taking seriously grassroots interaction but not enough to dramatically shape the electorate through them. “All this is not to say that door knocking doesn’t work,” concluded a memo that Tranter and Stobie released on their website in late December. “But it like every other tactic must only be applied in support of a strategy designed to the realities that each unique campaign must face.”

Implied was that Rubio could win states only by making significant inroads in other candidates’ bases through persuasion, not through the incremental gains that come with turnout. At the same time, Rubio’s comparative lack of cash gave him few opportunities to persuade voters on his own terms. His advertising buys were measly, keeping him off television in the day’s largest media markets—Atlanta, Washington, Dallas, and Houston—although the campaign saw adjacent suburban areas as friendly turf. (Pro­Rubio advertising in those markets came from an allied super­PAC.) Ultimately his team was counting on what they assumed was a pro­Marco gravity in public opinion: If Rubio could get close to his goals, he would close the margin by dint of the fact that he was more popular among late­-deciding voters than Trump or Cruz. On Rubio’s spreadsheets, there was no red, only green.

The Second-­Best Television Candidate

From the outset, the Rubio strategy was one of maintaining the candidate’s popularity above all else. One who could establish himself as broadly acceptable as voters’ second choice, transcending the party’s factional cleavages, could afford to linger in the middle of the pack. Rubio would wait for other candidates to fall away and emerge as a consensus pick once voting started. Rubio aides expected that their cash would be more finite than many rivals’, but knew they had a candidate more naturally charismatic than any other in the field. They would rely largely on press exposure to introduce him to voters, and hope that a supportive super­PACs would swoop in later to support the efforts with aggressive ad buys that the campaign could not afford.

In the early stages, Rubio’s advisers were confident that they would be able to track how well their expected free-media dominance kept track with the paid efforts of better­-funded rivals. It was a calculation that would have been impossible to make just five years earlier. Free and earned media had been historically banked as two separate and irreconcilable currencies: media coverage as press mentions, and advertising in gross ratings points. Using data from the company Rentrak, which anonymizes viewership information from individual set-­top boxes, Øptimus matched its list of voters most likely to participate in Republican primaries and caucuses to audiences for every television program. As a result, they were able to measure programming and advertising on equal terms: how many impressions did a candidate get before the voters we want to persuade?

By fall, the Øptimus research repeatedly showed that media coverage consistently reached more voters than ads. Decisions about where to place Rubio as a guest could now be intelligently guided, toward local television stations with disproportionately Republican audiences, and again and again to friendly interviewers on Fox & Friends. (Rubio’s press team also found reason to remain sanguine about increasingly hostile snipes from the Morning Joe cast: according to Øptimus calculations, an estimated three likely Iowa caucus-­goers in the Ottumwa media market tuned into the MSNBC program.) It was not until the final week before the Iowa caucuses that the number of paid impressions for all of the candidates exceeded what they were generating through free coverage.

Yet as with so much, Trump upended every campaign’s careful equations. On a weekly basis the Øptimus reports quantified what appeared evident to television viewers: Trump was getting five or six times more exposure through television coverage, both news and non-­news programming, than Rubio. In the second­-to-­last week before the New Hampshire primary, Trump reached more primary voters there through free coverage than all the ads being shown to those same voters by the Rubio and Jeb Bush campaigns and the super­PACs backing them. When analysts translated that into more familiar terms, the result was staggering: a single Trump press conference in February generated coverage on the three cable news networks equivalent to $2.8 million in free advertising.

Why Trump’s Pants Became an Issue

Nine months of data at once affirmed and undermined Rubio’s strategic assumptions: his advisers had accurately accounted for the power of media coverage to offset financial disadvantages, but had not envisioned an election in which Rubio would not be the most camera­-friendly candidate. After spending much of the last year studiously avoiding day­-to­day media-­perpetuated conflict, Rubio in the last week upended his communications tactics. Now he would be the flamboyant and unpredictable one, and force Trump to catch up with him. On the day of the Nevada caucuses, Rubio left the state early so he could rest for a round of network television appearances the next morning. On Thursday, at a debate in Houston, Rubio repeatedly zapped Trump with alternating currents of derision and outrage. He started the next morning with a bemused reading of Trump’s misspelled tweets. Throughout the weekend he found increasingly shallow terms on which to mock the businessman—his face, his hair, his alleged incontinence—and provoked the response he wanted: a sustained exchange of camera-­ready putdowns. The episode did not seem to do much for Rubio’s position on the ballot, and risked damaging the high popularity scores his advisers had carefully nurtured throughout his years as a national figure. But when the analysts at Øptimus processed the numbers on Monday afternoon, it was clear the campaign was doing something right. Before them was something they had never seen before: over the course of a week their candidate had received more television coverage than Trump.

It was not the only area in which the candidate who was once the race’s most patient suddenly became its most spontaneous. Even as senior adviser Todd Harris told Politico last week that “as long as we are picking up delegates, we’re in the fight,” Rubio’s itinerary showed a campaign that had grown distracted from that objective. The advance team arranged three events in Virginia on Sunday even though it was the state that offered the least significant delegate return to the winner. Schedulers also dedicated a surprising amount of Rubio’s time to communicating with voters in Minnesota. In neither Minnesota nor Virginia was boosting Rubio’s vote share by, say, five points likely to yield much of a significant return in delegates. Instead, the goal in both states was, as one Rubio adviser put it, “getting the media off our back by winning a state.”

Planning for Chaos

At just the moment that he satisfied that objective and landed on a formula for attaining mass­-media parity with Trump, Rubio may discover that only a granular, targeted campaign will succeed in stopping the billionaire from reaching his delegate goal. For the first time ever, the tools of a modern delegate-­accumulation operation—the ability to intelligently track small­-scale movement and nimbly target resources for maximum efficiency—will have to be weaponized.

Analysts who were focused on boosting themselves to the nearest threshold will now be alert to places where they can keep the front­runner under one. All the non­Trump candidates want to ensure that Trump does not break 50 percent in Missouri, which would trigger winner-­take­-all bounty; every candidate has an interest in denying him those 52 delegates, regardless of where they end up scattering. Elsewhere diplomacy becomes essential. In the most obvious cases, that would mean clearing the way for one another in winner-­take-­all states where one candidate has a natural advantage, like Rubio’s Florida and John Kasich’s Ohio. In states that award delegates by winners of congressional districts, the triage of friendly territories can be even more localized; California offers 53 distinct opportunities for non­aggression pacts.

“This all depends upon them understanding that their best path to the nomination lies in nobody having a majority of delegates headed into the convention. So oddly enough their best option at this point may be to literally lose the primary—while denying Trump an outright win—to win the general,” says Alex Lundry, who oversaw targeting efforts as chief analytics officer on Bush’s campaign. “It would have to be collaborative across the non­Trump campaigns, but I’m not sure that those campaigns will be able to mentally get to the place they need to be in order to do this effectively.