Following this week’s third Republican debate, one of the major narratives to emerge has been that Marco Rubio will take the mantle of “establishment” or “business” candidate from Jeb Bush, whose viability as a contender is quickly fading. Even before the debate, there were reports from Business Insider that Wall Street was starting to come around to the idea of supporting Rubio.
But unlike his mentor, Rubio doesn’t make much sense as the candidate to represent the business wing of the Republican party. Bush comes from one of America’s most prominent business families, and he himself has been a businessman for decades, including stints advising both Lehman Brothers and Barclays after he left the Florida Governor’s Mansion. He may not be a strong debater, or even a great candidate, but you can’t doubt Bush’s business know-how and, most importantly, his connections on Wall Street and corporate America.
By contrast, Rubio is a career politician. After graduating from the University of Florida, he went straight to law school at the University of Miami and then became a city commissioner in West Miami. After that he ran for the Florida House of Representatives, where he served until 2008. Then in 2010, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. So no, not a whole lot of business experience there, or even much experience outside of the public sector.
Don Haider, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, is quite familiar with the establishment wing of the Republican Party. He was a Romney delegate at the 2012 Republican National Convention and is currently a Bush supporter. He thinks that anointing any candidate the “business candidate” is a fool’s errand, because business can mean a lot of things. Rubio, he notes, has made a case to entrepreneurs and small business owners, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get support from big business just yet. Plus, executives on Wall Street don’t really care who they support, as long as it’s a horse they can back.
“Wall Street wants to be with the winner, whoever it may be,” Haider says. If Rubio beats Bush in the Florida primary, which comes fairly early in the election cycle and rises to the top of the slate, big donors may start writing checks to a different Floridian.
There is one issue where Rubio and business line up pretty well: immigration. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, was part of Congress’ “Gang of Eight” in 2013 that proposed a fairly moderate immigration reform bill. Business tends to want healthy immigration to fill out its workforce, so corporate donors might shy away from hardline candidates like Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
That process of elimination is an important part of selecting the right candidate, says Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. This “isn’t like a CEO search,” he notes, where you can keep looking until you find what you want. Business voters have to work with the candidates in front of them.
“Businesspeople are smart, and they’re saying, ‘We better get our act together and get behind someone that has a chance to beat Hillary.'”
There’s also the pesky detail of Rubio’s personal finance history, which is well detailed and was brought up again during the CNBC debate: In the past, he’s struggled with debt while making extravagant purchases, as well as mixing campaign and personal cash.
Questionable decisions in Rubio’s personal financial life don’t necessarily mean that he would be a bad President for the economy, but it doesn’t jibe with support from big business. But Haider thinks Rubio has shown growth, and in the end, his personal finances won’t be an issue for the business world.
Finkelstein, however, believes Rubio’s financial missteps could be a big weakness in a battle with Hillary Clinton—not because of the issues themselves, but because one of the biggest attack lines the Republicans have against Clinton is her questionable financial dealings, especially those related to the Clinton Foundation. While Rubio’s problems aren’t quite as headline-grabbing, using those talking points as ammo is going to be a lot harder when Clinton can come right back with, “Well, Marco Rubio mixed up campaign and personal money.”
Bush can’t be counted out just yet, but if his support falls even more or if he chooses to drop out of the race, the big money is going to start looking for someone else to support. In a race long on personality but perhaps somewhat short on experience, Marco Rubio could very well end up being the bride Wall Street ends up with, even if it isn’t a perfect marriage.