What you need to know about Rubio and the Latino vote
Many assume that Rubio’s endorsement could help Romney win Latinos, but it isn’t as simple as many make it out to be. (Univision)
Could Marco Rubio bring Latinos back into the Republican fold in 2012?
That eternal question arose once again after the Cuban-American senator endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney Wednesday night, a move that fueled speculation that Romney would look to Rubio as his vice presidential nominee. Many Republicans believe that Rubio, a rising star in the party, could cure their ills with Latino voters if he’s on the ticket in November.
As expected, Rubio spent the day denying interest in the vice presidential slot and he also sought to downplay expectations at a press conference Thursday that his decision to back Romney was in any way connected to the candidates’ struggles in attracting Latino voters.
“I didn’t do this for that reason. That’s up to the candidates. I am not a candidate for the presidency,” Rubio said in Spanish when asked by Univision if his move could have an effect on his party’s relationship with Latinos.
While Rubio might not see it that way, many in the Republican Party believe that he could be the figure who could bridge the gap between the GOP and Latinos, a voting bloc that could play a decisive role in the fall. But at the same time, there are major flaws in that argument that are frequently highlighted by Democrats and other political observers.
Let’s take a deeper dive into both possibilities.
Why Rubio could win over Latinos:
The Republicans’ theory goes like this: If Rubio, 40, accepts the position of running mate, he becomes the first Latino on a major party presidential ticket. Unknown to most Latino voters nationwide, Rubio’s youth, charisma and oratory skills (in Spanish and English) would quickly wow them. Just enough of them would swing their votes toward the Romney-Rubio ticket in November, especially in his home state of Florida, where 43 percent of Latino voters say they are more likely to vote GOP with Rubio on the ticket, according to a January Univision/ABC News/Latino Decisions poll.
That could hand Romney the state’s crucial 29 electoral votes, allowing Republicans to send President Obama to a stunning defeat by turning one of his strengths, two-to-one Latino support, into a weakness.
“Marco Rubio is the Michael Jordan of American politics,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who does work for Rubio, said earlier this month. “We have the opportunity to point to great opportunities and great Republican Latino politicians so that, with the right message and with the right outreach, we will do better.”
In order to do this, Rubio would need to clear one of the major hurdles he faces with Latino voters nationwide: his position on immigration issues.
The senator is opposed to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and is against the DREAM Act, which would grant that path to undocumented students or those who join the military. Both of these are backed by large majorities of Latino voters, many of whom care deeply about the issue.
While he’s shied away from the issue before, he’s begun to prod his own party to improve its rhetoric on immigration and he’s working on a pared-down version of the DREAM Act, which could cause many Latinos to rethink their skepticism of his position on the issue and buy what he’s selling when talking about the economy.
“I think the Republican Party has to have a more positive message on immigration, we need to be the pro-legal immigration party and I hope that will begin to happen not just through a function of our nominee, but as a party in general,” he added in English following the Thursday press event.
Why Rubio can’t win over Latinos:
Democrats and Latino pollsters are very skeptical of the above scenario. For argument’s sake, let’s say Rubio accepts the vice presidential nomination and after a swing through Florida, the Romney campaign dispatches Rubio to Nevada, a Latino-heavy swing state that George W. Bush won in 2004, but Obama flipped in 2008.
To the GOP’s chagrin, Latino voters who attend his stump speech there leave the venue asking, who is that vendido (sell-out)? Rubio fails to wow the crowd. How did this happen?
While the freshman senator is fairly popular with Latinos in Florida, he’s relatively unknown to Latino voters outside his home state. Sixty percent say they either have no opinion of him or have never heard of him, according to the Univision poll.
And the potential gains he could bring Republicans are hazy at best. Only 25 percent nationwide say Rubio would encourage them to vote Republican, compared to 47 percent who say it would make no difference. Nineteen percent say it would make them less likely to vote for Rubio, virtually negating the group who would be more likely to vote for him.
Still, viewing Rubio as a threat, the Obama campaign and Democrats will likely do everything they can to define Rubio after he’s named the nominee. This could blanket the airwaves in states like Nevada, reminding voters there — in Spanish and English — that Rubio is against the DREAM Act, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and voiced support for Arizona’s right to pass its controversial immigration law.
Instead of being viewed as a step in the right direction, Rubio’s new DREAM Act could become known as a hollow attempt to replace the current version if Democrats message effectively.
That could turn off Latino voters, making them unwilling to listen to his pitch on other key issues like the economy. We got a preview of those arguments this week when Democrats criticized his endorsement of Romney.
“If Mitt Romney puts a Hispanic candidate on the ticket, I don’t think Hispanic voters are are going to look at that and say, Oh, yeah,’ and ignore the fact that he opposes the Dream Act,” Obama’s chief pollster Joel Benenson said Thursday, according to National Journal. “If you’ve been espousing the policies they have that are pretty harsh on immigration, to think that you can turn your vote numbers around by putting someone on the ticket because they’re Hispanic [won’t work].”
Another element ignored in many assessments of the issue is Rubio’s background as a Cuban-American. Whereas Cubans make up a plurality of Latino voters in Florida, 54 percent of the national Latino electorate is Mexican-American. Significant tension exists between the two groups, largely over the asylum status granted to Cubans in the U.S., which has in turn generated a class divide.
“Unfortunately, Cuban-Americans also have a reputation for looking down their noses at their hardworking but often less-successful distant relatives. Of course, Cuban-Americans do get a big head start: automatic legal status under that Cold War relic, the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act,” columnist Ruben Navarrette, who is Mexican-American, wrote last year.
That means that Rubio could have trouble connecting with Latino voters outside Florida in key swing states like Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Even within the Sunshine State, Rubio’s appeal with non-Cubans was significantly weaker than within the group. For example, only 22 percent of Puerto Ricans, the state’s second-largest voting bloc, say Rubio would make them more willing to vote GOP, according to the Univision poll.
And even if Rubio were able to connect with Latino voters, it would be difficult for him to make up for Mitt Romney’s unpopularity with the group, thanks in large part to the ex-Massachusetts governor’s long record of hawkish statements on immigration and his difficulties connecting with voters. He currently trails Obama by a whopping 70-14 percent margin nationwide, according to a Fox News Latino poll.
A 56-point deficit will be difficult, if not impossible, to erase in the 68 days between the end of the Republican National Convention and Election Day.
For Republicans, picking Rubio as their vice presidential nominee is tempting for obvious reasons, first and foremost their well-documented struggles with Latinos. But the GOP might want to think twice about putting the young politician on the ticket. The move could be more of a Hail Mary than a sure thing.