The question on the table is what happens to the Latino vote if Florida Senator Marco Rubio is the Republican presidential nominee? As a Latino, I am naturally interested in this question.
Being the first Latino on a national ticket may make Rubio a shoo-in for increased Latino support. But a number of politically-minded friends swear otherwise. Some assert that the Republican Party has turned its back on Latino voters, so Rubio’s heritage won’t matter. Others assert that Rubio’s Cuban roots would not translate into support from Mexican-Americans (or any non-Cuban Latino for that matter).
I am not trying to answer those questions. What I am trying to do is set some parameters for a Rubio candidacy by examining exit poll data among Latino voters.
Since 1976, GOP presidential candidates have averaged 30.2% of the Latino vote. Post-Watergate, Gerald Ford received a paltry 18%. 2004 lies on the other side of the spectrum when 44% of Latinos went for George W. Bush in what was largely viewed as a response to Karl Rove’s obsession with courting the Latino vote. Thus we have the two extremes and a historical range of 26%.
All other things being equal (e.g. Democrats nominate a non-Latino), if Rubio’s Latino heritage is at all helpful, he should receive more than 30.2% “on the natural.” After all, that average was set by white non-Latinos.
Bush’s 2004 performance suggests that vigorous courting of Latinos pays off for GOP candidates. Does Rubio’s push for an immigration bill qualify as “vigorous?” That is a good question. If it does then it is reasonable to think that he will get into the 40% range among Latinos. Let’s add to that his ability to communicate in Spanish (something Bush only did well enough to win praise for trying) plus the novelty/solidarity factor of being the first Latino running for the presidency. Now we see how Rubio could surpass Bush’s performance.
Let’s look at how Rubio could sink below 30% of the Latino vote. The possibility that the GOP has burned its bridge to Latinos is there. I personally do not believe that’s the case. Sure, center-left Latinos, and there are a lot of them, will not embrace the Republican Party, and, by extension a GOP candidate. But Rubio and the Republicans are not going after those voters; they are fishing for ideological moderates which make up at least 30% of the Latino electorate.
The cultural differences between Cubans and non-Cubans may be another issue for Rubio. However, to think that Mexican-Americans or Puerto Ricans (the two major nationalities embedded in the larger Latino population) would vote against Rubio because he is Cuban is a stretch for which there is no hard evidence.
What we are left with on the negative side is a scenario where if Rubio cannot get out of the GOP’s toxic shadow (if that exists in 2016) and if non-Cubans are hostile to Rubio, his support then recedes to Romney’s 27%. I find those premises hard to believe and therefore find that outcome very hard to believe.
In my book, the odds are very good that Rubio improves on the GOP average.
What are the stakes? The GOP candidate has won every election in which they amassed more than 33% of the Latino vote. Rubio just needs to be 4% better than average. I like his chances.
Full disclosure: I like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and co-hosted a fundraiser for him during his 2010 Senate race.