Marco Rubio's biggest mistake

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Marco Rubio forgot a cardinal rules of presidential campaigns: No substitute for ground game
  • Iowa in early January, Rubio had one minor field office, says Louis
  • If he learns from his mistake, Rubio may yet have a bright political future, says Louis

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Sen. Marco Rubio seemed as stunned as his followers at how completely his presidential campaign collapsed. "It is not in God's plan that I be president in 2016, or maybe ever," he told a crowd of about 1,000 supporters as he suspended his run for president.

I don't know what role the Almighty played, but it seems clear that Team Rubio lacked a coherent plan and a functioning political organization to sell his vision to voters. And that turned out to be fatal.
    Marco Rubio: Not God's plan that I be president in 2016
    Marco Rubio: Not God's plan that I be president in 2016

      JUST WATCHED

      Marco Rubio: Not God's plan that I be president in 2016

    MUST WATCH

    Marco Rubio: Not God's plan that I be president in 2016 00:49
    Many analysts, and Rubio himself, may chalk up his many losses to a smoldering anger among voters who are turning to Donald Trump and shunning every manner of traditional elected official. That's surely part of the picture -- but Rubio broke many of the time-honored political rules, and paid the price for it.
    On a trip to Iowa in early January, I was surprised to see that Rubio, virtually alone among the top contenders for president, had almost nothing in the way of field offices. The campaign instead had a single outpost in the suburbs, well outside the easy-to-reach central Des Moines area where other candidates set up shop.
    Contested convention? Trump's people have his back
    Contested convention? Trump's people have his back

      JUST WATCHED

      Contested convention? Trump's people have his back

    MUST WATCH

    Contested convention? Trump's people have his back 01:44
    This wasn't by chance or accident, but a deliberate decision by the campaign. In the fateful words of deputy campaign manager Rich Beeson last October (words that will surely haunt him): "The days of having to have 50 field staffers and 25 offices are done. We can have a field office and staff set up in a Starbucks with wireless and get just as much done as we can in a brick-and-mortar office with landlines."
    Political skeptics flagged the error right away. As one of the data-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight.com noted: "According to political science research, Rubio avoids the establishment of a ground game at his peril. ...Knocking on doors can increase turnout by nearly 10%, and effective phone calls can encourage an additional 4% of voters to head to the polls. Without a field office in an area, candidates will find it much more difficult to translate these tactics into victory."
    What is a brokered convention?
    brokered convention possibility explained orig_00000000

      JUST WATCHED

      What is a brokered convention?

    MUST WATCH

    What is a brokered convention? 01:35
    Team Rubio ignored the advice, pouring money into television ads in Iowa rather than field operations. The theory, as described by campaign manager Terry Sullivan to The New York Times, was that "more people in Iowa see Marco on 'Fox and Friends' than see Marco when he is in Iowa."
    Cruz:  The media will not decide election, voters will
    cruz super tuesday 3 speech sot cnn_00000306

      JUST WATCHED

      Cruz: The media will not decide election, voters will

    MUST WATCH

    Cruz: The media will not decide election, voters will 01:34
    Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz criss-crossed the state's 99 counties, opened multiple offices and organized thousands of door-knocking volunteers, consciously modeling its efforts on the way then-Sen. Barack Obama opened 34 field offices in Iowa and painstakingly leveraged the grass-roots effort into a surprise win in 2008.
    Cruz's Obama-style organizing led to his victory in the state, while Rubio finished in third place.
    The Rubio campaign never really abandoned its flawed theory, even as it became clear that Donald Trump would monopolize news coverage and make it hard for Rubio's media-driven strategy to take hold. Rubio finished in fifth place in New Hampshire and got shut out of winning any delegates in South Carolina, a state where Team Rubio had promised to finish first.
    In the end, Rubio won only a single state, Minnesota, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and his final night of campaigning was a complete debacle: Rubio finished dead last in four of the five states holding primaries and was crushed by more than 20 points in his home state, losing every county in Florida except Miami-Dade.
    Rubio's conservative opponents will chalk his losses up to the young senator's cozy relationships with donors and party leaders at a time when voters are suspicious of anything that could be labeled the establishment.
    But the truth is that his TV-driven strategy would have led to defeat no matter what the message.
    No matter how fancy our screens and gadgets get, there's no substitute for good old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor contact and personal candidate appearances. If Rubio has learned that lesson, he may yet have a bright future with voters who didn't so much reject him as wonder who he really was.