Republicans look beyond Rubio to woo Latinos
Mitt Romney is poised to leave his biggest play for Latino votes in his back pocket. Here’s why.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has said he doesn’t prefer to discuss the vice presidency, and soon he may not have to if indications are true that he has fallen out of the running to serve as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Media reports have fueled speculation that Romney could name his number two soon, but Rubio has now seemed to fall behind more conventional candidates for the vice presidency, despite a heavy amount of buzz involving the freshman senator.
Other potential picks, like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who are seen as less risky choices for the Republican ticket, have overtaken Rubio as favorites for the vice presidential nomination.
The so-called “veepstakes” is one of Washington’s favorite parlor games, but no one outside of Romney’s inner circle truly knows whom he will select or when. Still, it’s worth considering what Romney would be missing if he doesn’t pick Rubio (and what he wouldn’t), and what the future holds for the young senator.
One of the main reasons Rubio received such a large amount of VP buzz was his potential to bring more Latino voters, a group that strongly favors President Obama, into the GOP fold. If Rubio is not selected, Romney would essentially forgo the most aggressive play he could make for the Latino votes he needs – or otherwise risk a poor showing that could hurt him in November.
Republicans have long cited Rubio’s youth, charisma, and Cuban-American heritage — and the fact he would be the first Latino on a major party presidential ticket — as factors that could help him sway Latino votes.
A July Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll showed that if he was on the ticket, Rubio could swing Florida’s Latino voters eight percentage points, from 49 percent to 42 percent in favor of Obama to 44 percent to 43 percent in favor of Romney. Obama’s advantage among Latino voters in Florida was a big reason he won the state in 2008.
The senator also took steps this year to assuage Latino and immigrant-rights activists, who have taken issue with Rubio over his opposition to the DREAM Act and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He worked for months on an alternative DREAM Act proposal, which did not come to fruition, but provided him the opportunity to reach across the aisle to Democrats on a contentious issue for Latino voters nationwide.
Romney, who earned a reputation as an immigration hardliner during the GOP primary, frequently cites Rubio’s stances on the issue as he attempts to soften his image on immigration.
Dan Judy, vice president at North Star Opinion Research (which has done polling for Rubio), said that even if the senator was only able to peel off a sliver of Obama’s Latino supporters – or win over undecided Latinos – it could make a difference in states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.
“Even if you put a Marco Rubio on the ticket and he got 5 or 10 percent of the Latino vote, that could swing a state in favor of Gov. Romney,” he said in an interview.
But Rubio’s actual appeal to Latino voters outside his home state has long been questionable.
Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc, and Rubio’s Cuban heritage won’t automatically endear him to the broader population of Latino voters in battleground states, the majority of whom are Mexican-American.
A plurality of Latino voters nationwide said that putting Rubio on the ticket would make no difference in how they vote, according to a January Univision/ABC News/Latino Decisions poll. Even in Florida, the poll found Rubio’s support softer among non-Cuban Latinos, such as Puerto Ricans, the state’s second-largest bloc.
Skeptics have noted that putting Rubio on the ticket could backfire, since it could be viewed as a desperate pander for Latino support.
Republicans say that choosing running mate simply to appeal to a single demographic group like Latinos, (diverse as it may be) would be unwise.
“Trying to appeal to a particular constituency is an added bonus but should not be the reason to pick a running mate,” Florida-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro, who is close with Rubio, told Univision News. “Marco would help some with the Hispanic vote but Romney needs to pick someone who is best fit for him and for the administration he envisions running.”
With the economy and jobs slated to be the top issues, picking a former federal budget director like Portman could help Romney underscore that message better than Rubio. The Ohio senator also hails from a swing state, like Florida, which is crucial for both candidates to win. A former two-term governor like Pawlenty also offers Romney a nominee with experience who could replace Romney in case of emergency, the number one concern in picking a running mate.
“I think when you’re choosing a VP, personality is important,” said Sharon Castillo, a member of Romney’s Hispanic steering committee. “But I think any candidate would look at what gives you a more complete picture and a more compelling picture to attract more people.”
Considering the strengths of the other candidates and the uncertainty of Rubio’s ability to woo Latinos, putting the Florida senator on the ticket might have been a gamble Romney was unwilling to take.
“At times, there was this perception like ‘well, we’ll just put Rubio on the ticket, and then we’ll check that Hispanic box and we’ll talk about other stuff.’ It was never going to be that way,” said Mario H. Lopez, president of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund.
If Romney wants to close the approximately 40-percentage point deficit in Latino support against Obama, he’ll have to rely on his existing team of advisers and Latino surrogates, which includes Rubio. The senator will make his first solo appearances on the trail from Romney this weekend in Nevada and Colorado.
“The bottom line is, though, that the vice president does not bring out any votes,” said Jennifer Sevilla Korn, executive director of the GOP-aligned Hispanic Leadership Network. “Romney needs to engage with the Hispanic community on a state-by-state level.”
Though he appears unlikely to be on the ticket, Rubio benefited from the process. He was the only candidate whom Romney admitted to vetting and through his appearances on national TV as a potential nominee, he gained national exposure beyond Florida and conservative circles where he’s already well-known. Romney’s announcement last month that Rubio was being vetted came just two weeks before he launched a national book to promote his new memoir.
Rubio will likely have another opportunity to promote his national profile through a speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa next month, though he has not yet been confirmed as a speaker.
“I think the way process has played out has been very good for Marco. His name was constant mentioned as a possibility,” said Navarro. “Being considered and not being picked is the best case scenario for Marco. He gets all the benefits of being in the running but in the end he remains very much his own person instead of anybody else’s number two.”
(Photo: Flickr, Gage Skidmore)