The GOP's New Latino Friend, Or Maybe Not

For some time now, everyone has assumed that whoever the Republican nominee for president turns out to be, Florida senator Marco Rubio will be that person's choice for vice president. Rubio is young, handsome, charismatic, articulate, good at raising money (he pulled in $21 million for his Senate race last year), and as an added bonus, he's Latino in a party dominated by old, boring white guys. But is the bloom coming off Rubio's rose? In the last week there's been some controversy over the story of Rubio's parents; briefly, he's always referred to them as "exiles" from Cuba and stated before that they fled the Castro regime, but it now turns out that they left Cuba a few years before the revolution. In Florida's Cuban community, this matters, because being an exile or the child of exiles gives you extra status.

But as the Washington Post reports today, "Democrats had already questioned whether a Cuban American who has voiced conservative views on immigration and opposed the historic Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice, could appeal to a national Hispanic electorate of which Cubans are just a tiny fraction but have special immigration status. And Rubio’s support in Florida among non-Cuban Hispanics has been far less pronounced than among his fellow Cubans." Then you have the strange story of the feud between Rubio and Univision over a story the network aired about the senator's brother-in-law, which led all the presidential candidates to refuse to participate in a Univision debate in solidarity with Rubio.

Rubio probably has a bright future, but the GOP is mistaken if it thinks he can bring in a significant amount of Latino support for their ticket, for two reasons. The first is that because he's Cuban, that support is anything but guaranteed. One of the first things you learn when you dip a toe into Latino politics is that the question of identity is complex and requires some subtlety to handle effectively. There is a broad Latino identity that binds people who came (or whose parents or grandparents came) from different countries, but there are also distinct identities that people have based on the particularly country of their heritage. Cubans have always been a group apart, because their political standing has been so markedly different from immigrants from any other country. If you're Cuban, you don't have to worry about eluding the immigration authorities, no matter how you got here -- step one foot on American soil, and you're allowed to stay. Every four years, presidential candidates from both parties troop down to Florida to genuflect before the Cuban community and promise to keep the embargo going. So Cubans occupy a privileged place, particularly in the Republican party. I'm sure that the reaction among many Latinos if the GOP nominated a Latino for VP would be: of course it's a Cuban, and we're not all that impressed.

Second, and far more important, it's much easier to convince a group of people you hate them than it is to convince that group you love them. And Republicans have been working very, very hard to convince Latinos that the GOP hates them. Just as they did four years ago, the candidates have gotten into a contest to prove who hates immigrants more, accusing each other of being insufficiently hostile to "illegals." You let an illegal mow your lawn!, shouts Rick Perry at Mitt Romney. Oh yeah, well you let illegals go to college!, shouts Romney back. Don't think that has gone unnoticed.

In 2004, John Kerry won the Latino vote by 18 points, 58-40. Four years later, after a GOP primary campaign that featured an immigration "debate" much like the one we're seeing now, Barack Obama won that vote by 36 points, 67-31. After months of unremitting hostility, Republicans are not going to be able to turn around to Latinos and say, "Hey, forget all that stuff we said before. How about if we make Marco Rubio our VP nominee?"

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