Stuck in Third Place, Rubio Tries ‘Micro-Branding’ in Iowa

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Presidential Candidate Marco Rubio Holds Town Halls With Trey Gowdy
Hello. It's me.Photo: Scott Morgan

Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio completed his last-ditch “Out With the Old, in With the New” bus tour in Iowa last week and has moved on to New Hampshire. And in both states, the Florida politician has been trumpeting, to much applause, that he would “be the vocational-education president!”

Rubio made this declaration in snowy Newton, Iowa, at the end of December, adding that technical jobs like welding and plumbing are “the kinds of jobs you build communities around, the jobs that serve as the backbone of the country.”

The Florida politician has been stressing this particular kind of education reform since he announced his bid for the presidency in April last year. He promises to remove the stigma surrounding vocational education and start celebrating it — and he’s pretty much the only GOP candidate to do so.

His ideas have resonated with Americans all over the country and overwhelmingly so in Newton, where the Maytag Corporation had been the community’s backbone for decades — a support system that collapsed when the company relocated to Mexico in 2007, putting nearly 2,000 Iowans out of a job. “It’s a company town. It was 115 years of Maytag: Maytag family, Maytag dairy farm, Maytag parks," Newton mayor Chaz Allen told CNN Money in 2012. "It was a great partnership."

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Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a town-hall meeting at the Maytag Innovation Center in Newton, Iowa.Photo: Scott Morgan

Newton, which initially suffered staggering unemployment, is making a recovery with the introduction of new wind-power manufacturing businesses. Newton resident Jeff Ortiz said trade school is “key” in towns like his: “The [students] who know by ninth or tenth grade they’re not college material, give them the opportunity to get a skill.”

I like that [Rubio] gets out there and says that college isn’t for everybody,” Ron Romine, a resident of Red Oak, Iowa, told Daily Intelligencer. “I love that he wants to use Pell Grants for kids to go to trade school. What are you going to do with a degree in women’s studies? I know what I pay my plumbers and electricians when they come to my house, and they’re making big bucks.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also stressed the need to “get back to really respecting vocational and technical work,” and has even posited the European model of paid apprenticeships to solve youth unemployment. Senator Bernie Sanders has also suggested providing free vocational training as part of a free higher-education system. But none of the other Republican contenders have placed such an emphasis on celebrating vocational education. Why Rubio?

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Senator Marco Rubio shakes hands with attendees after a town hall meeting at the Maytag Innovation Center on Dec. 30, 2015.Photo: Scott Morgan

Rubio needs a ‘brand,’ and many of the other topics have been taking by Cruz, Trump, and Carson, so I think he’s ‘micro-branding’ on safe issues like vocational education,” Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt told Daily Intelligencer in an email. Cruz is shaping up to be the indiscriminate carpet-bombing Evangelist president. Trump is the anti-immigrant (and anti-Muslim) president, and Carson is the kind-but-inexperienced doctor president. Being the vocational-education president was up for grabs. And Rubio needs a boost, given that he’s currently behind both Trump and Cruz at around 11 percent in the polls in Iowa, where the caucuses will take place on February 1.

That doesn’t mean Rubio is a moderate — in fact, on issues like abortion and gay rights, he’s located to the right of George W. Bush. But so far his rhetoric has been less rage-fueled than that of other candidates, and he’s setting himself up as the candidate in support of education and jobs.

How can you go wrong?” Schmidt said. “It’s like running in support of motherhood or apple pie.”

Perhaps that’s why people in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states are responding so well to his words. In Rochester, New Hampshire, the candidate’s education ideas were “in step with concerns for many people” and spurred enthusiastic applause, according to the New York Times. And in Laconia, New Hampshire, Rubio struck a chord with community members who prize their two popular community colleges. “We can’t continue to stigmatize vocational training, not when we know that we need a lot of welders and plumbers,” he said, “applause drowning out the end of his sentence,” according to the Laconia Union Leader.

During a GOP debate in November, Rubio made the attention-grabbing and factually dubious assertion that “Welders make more money than philosophers.”

ISIS, gay marriage, the evil federal government, the national debt, and illegal immigrant raping and killing are much hotter issues, and Rubio is looking for the voters who are not excited by the temperature of the current GOP themes,” Schmidt said, adding that Establishment Republicans need a candidate like Rubio. Even independents in the two earliest voting states are bound to like him, Schmidt says.

According to recent Gallup data, some 21 percent of Americans think that economic problems are the biggest issues facing our country. Three percent name education as the biggest problem.

If Rubio is to become the presidential champion of trade school, he has a lot of catching up to do. In Iowa, he’s trailing state favorite Cruz by nearly 20 points, and despite his last-ditch bus tour, a caucus win doesn’t seem probable. However, nationally, despite the fact that he’s even further behind current all-around GOP favorite Trump, Rubio still has time to set himself apart.

I don’t like Republican platforms generally,” Ann Stelle, an undecided Democrat attending the Newton rally, told DI, “but if we had to have a Republican in this office, he would be one of the least frightening of them.”