On the eve of the Olympics and conventions there is rampant speculation about the tight-lipped Republican veepstakes. Like most people outside the Romney High Command, I haven’t the foggiest. But there’s one point I must stress to the Marco Rubio camp: he won’t win over the Latino vote.
First, many people happily vote across ethnic lines. Michael Steele lost the black vote in his Senate race in Maryland, as Alan Keyes did before him. In Tennessee, Rep. Steve Cohen—white and Jewish—easily overcame well-financed and well-connected black, Christian opponents three times to date in a Democratic district that is overwhelmingly black and Christian. Moreover, Gene Green (white), Maxine Waters (black), and Jody Chu (Asian) are immensely successful in predominantly Hispanic districts.
In 2008, I opposed then-Sen. Obama precisely because I thought him an inferior candidate. (And he has done a remarkable job governing down to my expectations.) While a lot of folks (mostly Democrats) were openly baffled by this, I knew many black people who felt the same and campaigned accordingly. Indeed, Obama was losing black voters to Hillary Clinton until he started getting national traction after his Iowa victory.
Put simply, most voters care about much more than race or ethnicity.
Secondly, Hispanics are not monolithic. Distinct from the Southwest, many Florida Latinos are Cuban (like Rubio) or Puerto Rican, and both groups are, by definition, in the U.S. legally. Not coincidentally, only in Florida—where political concerns branch far beyond immigration—do Hispanics tend to vote Republican.
If Mitt Romney wants to win over Hispanic voters nationally, he needs more than a young, charismatic freshman Senator on the ticket. (The electorate is probably leery enough of those by now.) Without pandering—nobody likes condescension—he must persuade Hispanic businessmen, teachers, blue-collar workers, professionals, and young people that his governing agenda will work for them. This will be difficult to do without addressing the issue in which many Hispanics—even in Florida—are disproportionately invested: immigration reform.
Rep. David Rivera, another Florida Republican, was well aware of this reality when he proposed his conservative alternative to the Dream Act ahead of Rubio’s version. Previously, George W. Bush likewise made resolving immigration issues central to his Hispanic outreach. Governor Bush won 40% of Hispanic voters in Texas in 1998; President Bush won a comparable proportion across America in 2004.
For now, President Obama has a staggering lead among Hispanics and a popular new immigration policy to boot. But the race is still the Republicans’ to lose. It’ll be up to Governor Romney to change the narrative.