The GOP's Marco Rubio delusion: The flawed Republican strategy that could make him the nominee

Many Republicans imagine that Rubio could win the Hispanic vote purely by dint of his ethnicity. They are mistaken

Published May 11, 2015 5:05PM (EDT)

  (AP/Alan Diaz)
(AP/Alan Diaz)

Not one day had passed before Mitt Romney decided why he lost: Black voters. In his concession phone call back in November, Romney annoyed President Barack Obama by crediting the president’s victory to turnout “in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee” — in other words, places where African-Americans live, according to David Axelrod’s book, released earlier this year.

Black voters did back Obama in historic numbers. But what was galling to the president, we can guess from Axeldon's account, is the subtext of Romney’s claim: That Obama's popularity came from blind racial affinity — blacks voting for other blacks — rather than rational self-interest or independent thought. This conjures up the notion that a black vote doesn't really "count," or at least that it doesn't mean as much as a "race-neutral" white vote.

This idea is offensive and wrong. But it continues to exert a powerful hold on the conservative imagination, both in the Republican right-wing and in the party's mainstream alike. As such, it stands to have a major — and, as far as I can tell, unrecognized — impact on the 2016 elections.

Here's how: Most political commentators say that former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker are the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination. I disagree. Instead, it seems to me that Florida Senator Marco Rubio has the inside track to the nomination — in part because of his charisma, in part because of his policy positions, but also because he is most likely to benefit from Republican myths about minority voters.

Rubio’s got a lot going for him. He is smart, telegenic and a powerful speaker. He has staked out positions conservative enough to make him generally acceptable to the party's base. He doesn't have to defend the abysmal record that Walker left in Wisconsin. And his last name is not Bush; it's hard to overstate that conservatives really regard that brand as toxic.

Rubio's poll numbers are already on the rise. A CNN poll in late April put Rubio at the top of the pack. If Rand Paul is the Republican candidate somehow most out of step with both his party and the general electorate, Rubio occupies the precisely opposite position — he’s the most electable candidate who can also appeal to its base.

But there’s also this: Rubio is a minority. The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has a genuine and inspiring story to tell about his upbringing. That the son of a bartender and maid has a chance to become our president is something that should be welcomed and celebrated by members of both parties.

Where conservatives make a terrible mistake is in assuming that nominee Rubio, by sole virtue of being Hispanic, will lead to a mass conversion of Latinos to the GOP. Yet that’s what many conservatives appear to be thinking. Hot Air muses that Rubio “could also leverage his Hispanic background to make inroads with Latino voters.” Rush Limbaugh is encouraged by praise for Rubio from the “identity politics” thinkers. A New York Times story this week exploring conservatives' relationship with Rubio's background is full of observations like this — that the party can improve its chances merely by changing its candidate's race.

This thinking is not surprising. Republicans have spent seven years attributing Obama’s success with black voters to his race. It's no surprise that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina suggested that her gender could be, as memorably lampooned by Salon's Katie McDonough, a “Magic” trump card against Hillary Clinton.

To be sure, not all conservatives think that Rubio's race will net Latino votes. And Republicans aren't totally alone in thinking that identity politics are the main factor in elections.  But that doesn’t make it any less wrong. If nominated by the Republicans, Rubio will lose the Latino vote for the reasons that he should — like an economic policy that does little for lower-income Latinos and his disastrous stance on immigration reform. A study in April by two university professors looked carefully at Rubio’s support among Hispanics. “We find no evidence that Rubio will draw significant Latino support for his candidacy,” the professors found.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is a recent Cornell graduate and the editor of the Ithaca Voice.

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Elections 2016 Gop Hispanic Voters Marco Rubio Republican Primary