On the evening of Tuesday the 15th, when even Marco Rubio must have finally understood that his campaign was over, the 5,000 seats of the Florida International University Arena sat empty as his supporters were herded into a narrow rectangle in the lobby. It was staging for the last time, the crowd — like the ones promised for months — vapor even at the end.
The signs out in Sunrise, Florida, declared THIS IS RUBIO COUNTRY, and for once they were right. They’d said that in Nevada, where Donald Trump beat Rubio by 22 points, and they’d said that in South Carolina, where Trump beat him by 10. But out here, past West Miami, and its over 60 percent Cuban population, was Rubio’s center of gravity, and, at the end of the day, it was the only place in the state that would have him.
By the time the event started at FIU there were no lines. The Secret Service whisked people through, and for a while journalists outnumbered attendees. Donor types recognized each other, shook hands and leaned in for unsmiling conversation — their voices eventually rising only to compete with the music and talking heads shooting stand-ups.
The crowd was almost as bad as six days before, when someone either forgot to cancel an event at a Hialeah football stadium or else couldn’t get the deposit back. Rubio’s people made the mistake of shaping the crowd into a terminal metaphor by corralling them in an end zone, but the empty stands gave the game away. Even with the official cameras tight in on the people there, they couldn’t stop others from taking a snapshot of the surrounding emptiness.
Eventually the supporters-to-journalists ratio stabilized at 1:1, as Rubio’s handlers packed people closer to the stage. For a free event on a college campus, only a few kids trickled in to shift the demographics in Rubio’s favor, but just before the polls closed at 8:00, 25 more journalists frogmarched in and blew the numbers at the last second. A woman walked patiently after her toddling daughter, who excitedly half-ran out a set of doors, unaware she was attending a funeral.
Twelve people before the stage waved signs. A “Marco! Marco! Marco!” chant went up for exactly one minute. There were whispers in the crowd. Nineteen points. Trump had taken every county in the state but Miami-Dade, the one we were in. An attempt at booing stopped almost as it started, perhaps out of embarrassment.
A few minutes later, an announcer who might have been thrown in a van and driven over from a motor speedway boomed, “Lllllllaaaaaadiesssss and gentlemennnnn, please welcome Senator Maaaaaarrrrrrrco Rrrrrrrrrruuuuuubiiiiiioooooo,” and no engines started.
The Rubio campaign died quietly — in a small room of true believers, vastly outnumbered by the rest of the citizenry — smothered by all the space between expectations and reality, as Marco Rubio exhorted his fellow Republicans with aspirational, warmed-over bullshit that no one, especially now, had much use for.