Marco Rubio's Disastrous Debate: A Case Study In Bad Bridging

I’ve long admired Marco Rubio’s communications skills. Back in 2010, I gave him an “A”—tied with President Obama for the top spot in my communications scorecard.
I begin with that only to make the point that I’m not a Rubio hater—but his performance in Saturday night’s debate was one of the worst I’ve seen. James Fallows of The Atlantic called his performance the “most self-destructive debate performance since Quayle ’88 and J.B. Stockdale ’92.”
Senator Rubio came into the debate with a clear talking point he wanted to repeat numerous times: that President Obama knew exactly what he was doing in reshaping the country—and that Obama’s vision needed to be reversed by the next president.
The problem is that Rubio repeated that same point almost verbatim four times—and even after being called out for doing so, he persisted. The first answer you’ll see below came after he was asked what qualified him for the presidency.

When Christie attacked Rubio for his lack of accomplishments and experience, Rubio quickly returned to his talking point du jour:

“I think the experience is not just what you did, but how it worked out. Under Chris Christie’s governorship of New Jersey, they’ve been downgraded nine times in their credit rating. This country already has a debt problem. We don’t need to add to it by electing someone who has experience in running up and destroying the credit rating of his state. [Transition begins here] But I would add this: Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world. We want to be the United States of America.”

The first half of Rubio’s answer was solid. But his transition was so abrupt it could cause whiplash—and Gov. Christie, who was in top form tonight, pounced:

“I want the people to think about this. That’s what Washington, D.C. does: the drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisors gave him.”

With that, the crowd—which had also noticed Rubio’s clumsy non-sequitur—let out a boisterous cheer.  And then came the most surprising part: Rubio went back to the same “Obama knows what he’s doing” talking point again—and the crowd, annoyed by this point, booed.
Rubio’s insistence on getting his message out without gauging its appropriateness to the moment immediately reminded me an infamous interview with Ed Miliband, the British Labor Leader.

“Bridging” during a media interview is often an effective practice (read my media interview bridging series here), but the message you’re bridging to must be at least tangentially related to the topic.
Rubio wasn’t trying to bridge from Point A to Point B—he was trying to leap over a canyon.
The left-leaning Huffington Post went with the following headline following this debate. Despite their ideological bias, I think it accurately reflects what I—and Rubio’s GOP competitors—saw on the debate stage tonight.
Marcobot Malfunctions
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