Nobody knows whether the Republican presidential nominee will be Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, or one of the other contenders. But virtually everybody who follows politics seems confident of one thing: The eventual nominee’s running mate will be Marco Rubio, the first-term senator from Florida.
It’s not just because he’s charismatic or eloquent—although he is both of those things. It’s also because Rubio’s Hispanic. And the ability to lure that traditionally Democratic constituency away from President Obama is tantalizing for Republicans. “When you look at the swing states and you look at the growing Hispanic population,” American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas recently said, “you have to ask, ‘Would a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush almost guarantee us a victory in those six states and win us the presidency?’ Probably.” But this, in turn, raises a question the answer to which is far from obvious: How do Hispanic voters really feel about Marco Rubio?
RUBIO HAS A GENUINELY inspiring story to tell—about parents who came to the United States in 1959 seeking a better life, about a father who toiled in low-paying jobs while his family settled in the new land, and about a young boy who eventually triumphed in school and then politics through sheer effort. But Rubio’s identity has one complicating factor that even political professionals sometimes overlook: He’s Cuban. Cuban-Americans constitute less than 5 percent of American Latinos, and they have their own, very distinct political profile.
Like Rubio’s parents, the Cubans who came to the United States after 1959 were political refugees fleeing Fidel Castro; they almost certainly had an easier time getting into the country than, say, your typical Mexican immigrant trying to cross the border near El Paso. The early waves of Cuban refugees were also generally better educated than most Latinos today—which helps explain why, overall, Cubans are more likely to live above the poverty line and have high-paying jobs compared with other Hispanic groups. It also helps explain why, according to the Pew Research Center, Cubans are more likely than other Latinos to identify themselves in surveys as “white” and less likely to see the immigration debate as provoking discrimination. Although their views aren’t consistently more conservative on other issues—they are less opposed to abortion rights, for example, perhaps because they are less religious—they’re far more likely to identify as Republicans. The main reason is probably historical: their association of the GOP with fighting communism.
So Cuban and non-Cuban Latinos have a different political history in the United States and a different set of priorities. And, at least recently, Rubio has not gone out of his way to endear himself to non-Cuban Latinos. Earlier in his career, when Rubio was speaker of the Florida House, Latino political leaders from across the ideological spectrum credited him with helping to undermine several restrictive immigration measures. But, by 2010, as he ran for Senate in Florida, he was largely toeing the conservative line on immigration. He opposed the DREAM Act, which would make it easier for the children of undocumented workers to become citizens. Later, he said the Census shouldn’t include undocumented workers in its population count. With federal funds to Florida at stake, state as well as national Latino leaders attacked Rubio publicly. Today, Rubio’s office says he never changed positions—that he was always more conservative than liberal immigration activists. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, saw things differently. “The Marco Rubio we honored [in 2007] was much more of an advocate of the immigrant community,” he said after Rubio announced his position on the census.
In the end, Rubio got a majority of the state’s Latino votes in 2010. But that was largely because he won nearly 80 percent of the Cuban vote. He had much more trouble connecting with non-Cuban Latinos, winning 40 percent of their votes, according to exit polls.
To be sure, 40 percent isn’t awful. It’s actually the threshold many strategists believe Republicans must reach with Latino voters in order to win a national election. In 2004, George W. Bush got around 40 percent of the Latino vote, although the polling data isn’t entirely clear. In 2008, by contrast, John McCain got closer to 30 percent. But 2010 was an unusually strong year for Republicans. And the Florida Senate race had an unusual dynamic: It was a three-way race with a weak Democratic contender, Kendrick Meek, who nobody believed had a chance of winning.
Rubio’s standing with the non-Cuban Latino community does not seem to have improved since he came to Washington. A few months into office, perhaps in response to pressure from conservative activists, he agreed to co-sponsor a controversial bill from Senator Charles Grassley that would have forced businesses to verify employee immigration status electronically. Liberal immigration advocates oppose the bill, arguing that it has a high failure rate and would drive more jobs into the underground economy. “Rubio is becoming persona non grata among Latinos outside of the Cuban-American community,” syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette wrote in July. “Hispanics will see him as somebody who betrayed his ethnicity for political gain,” says Juan Zapata, a Republican state representative in Florida with less conservative views than Rubio.
Of course, whether or not Rubio plays well in the Southwest and other areas with high numbers of Mexicans, Central Americans, or Puerto Ricans, he’s sure to help in Florida. In 2008, Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban vote, the highest percentage ever for a Democrat. Rubio’s presence on the Republican ticket would be virtually certain to reduce that number. And, in Florida, as we all know, even a few hundred votes can make a big difference.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 6, 2011, issue of the magazine.