Rising Republican star though he may be, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's national appeal may be tepid among the Hispanic voters both parties are so desperately courting this election year.
To win the presidential election, Republicans would like to repeat the success of former President George W. Bush, who garnered 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. Democrats will need to capture a larger share by at least matching the 67 percent President Obama received in 2008.
In a year when the economy and unemployment dominate the national debate, it’s unlikely that merely having a Latino as a vice-presidential running mate is going to be enough to sway most of the country’s 12 million registered Hispanic voters, say political experts on the Hispanic vote.
"We don't have any evidence that [Rubio] would provide any significant boost to Romney if he were on the ticket," said Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, which in January conducted a widely cited poll of Hispanic voters for Univision and other media outlets. Story here
-- Erika Bolstad
He noted the survey found Rubio did best in Florida with first- and second-generation Cuban-Americans, but was less popular with Hispanic voters with roots in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico. Voters of Mexican descent are critical because they represent a significant majority of U.S. Hispanic voters.
"He's not going to be the type of candidate who can go out and resonate with the Mexican-American audiences in the Southwest," Barreto said.
Outside of Florida, the Cuban-American senator may be gaining popularity but is still unfamiliar to most.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found that voters in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania were far more likely to support their hometown politicians as vice presidential contenders. In Florida, they support Rubio. In Ohio, it's Republican Sen. Rob Portman. And in Pennsylvania, voters like neighboring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the most as a possible VP.
It's not clear how much Rubio helps Romney in Florida, either. A mid-April poll conducted by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina found that with Rubio on the ticket, Romney drops in Florida from 45 percent to 43 percent. Obama stays at 50 percent, PPP pollster Tom Jensen wrote. Among Hispanics in Florida, the pollsters found Obama leads 52 to 37 percent with Hispanics. With Rubio on the ticket, Obama still leads 52 to 37 with Hispanics.
Hispanics are not a monolithic voting bloc, said Jill Hanauer, CEO and president of the Colorado-based Project New America, which worked with PPP on the poll. Their findings: Republicans won't be able to make up ground with Latino voters simply by nominating a Hispanic vice presidential candidate
They looked at how well a Romney-Rubio ticket would do in Florida, how Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval did with Romney on the ticket in Nevada, and what the outcome would be if they paired Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico with Romney. It had negligible effect, Hanauer said. "Hispanic voters are still going to overwhelmingly vote for President Obama," she said.
Whether Romney's potential vice presidential running mates are likely to appeal to Hispanic voters or not, they will get a more thorough vetting this year than in 2008, thanks to Sen. John McCain's pick of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The Florida Democratic Party has been salivating over the possibility of such a high-profile target as Rubio, releasing daily rundowns of media reports about the Florida senator. They include rehashing Rubio's personal use of the Republican Party of Florida's credit card, campaign finance irregularities, and his friendship with U.S. Rep. Florida David Rivera, R-Fla.
The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement recently closed an 18-month investigation into Rivera’s campaign and personal finances without filing charges. Rivera, his campaign said, was “exonerated.” He is still under investigation by the FBI and IRS over his finances.
Meanwhile, Rubio has been on an aggressive public relations push, giving speeches on foreign affairs and appearing on television regularly. He plans to release his own memoir June 19. It's the same date a Washington Post reporter publishes a separate biography.
Rubio, who is among several politicians mentioned as possible vice presidential nominees, has repeatedly said he won't talk about the job. That's up to Romney, he said. But he may have had a good understanding of what he could bring to the ticket as one of Romney's potential vice presidential running mates. "Presidential campaigns are won by the presidential nominee," he said in a recent interview.
The attention from the vice presidential selection process has made Rubio more of a national figure positioned to use his popularity, fundraising skills and high profile to help elect Romney. He says he plans to do just that this election year, especially when it comes to reaching out to Hispanic voters. He'll appear Sunday on Fox News, where he's billed as a "top surrogate" for Romney.
Rubio is "someone we want to use as much as possible," said Alexandra Franceschi of the Republican National Committee, and not just because he could appeal to potential Hispanic voters.
"He's a very effective speaker, he's incredibly charismatic and thoughtful," she said. "And his personal narrative really plays into why so many Hispanics have come to this country -- to secure the American Dream. That's his appeal to a broad range of Americans, not just Hispanics."
Rubio recently has previewed pieces of an immigration reform package in part to allay criticism of the Republican Party's vitriolic language on the subject. Like the DREAM Act supported by many Democrats and President Obama, Rubio's proposal would allow young people who came to the U.S. illegally with their parents as children to stay in this country. Unlike the DREAM Act, it would not provide a direct path to citizenship.
Although President Barack Obama also has failed to act on his 2008 campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform, those active in Hispanic politics say the rhetoric on immigration during the Republican presidential primaries was more disheartening.
Hispanic voters do not consider immigration their most pressing concern -- most polls show that Latino voters are most interested in jobs and education. But by refusing to even consider the DREAM Act, Republicans have said they don't value the young Hispanic people it would cover, said Fernando Romero, who heads up the Hispanics in Politics, a nonpartisan political organization in Nevada.
"The DREAM Act involves a crop of just really good children, a crop most parents would want," he said. "It's a symbol, at least for many of us, it symbolizes the best of the best. And yet we have a party that is not accepting that. Until they do, we're not going to buy into many of the things they have to offer."
Some disagree, including Clarissa Martínez de Castro, director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organization. Rubio's willingness to work on immigration may help mend fences with some, even if Hispanics fundamentally disagree with him on other issues that are important to their community. Because its approach to the DREAM Act reflects how the Republican Party feels about the Hispanic community as a whole, if Rubio can successfully repair that, she said, he might make a difference in attracting voters to the GOP.
"Immigration is still a very powerful issue," she said. "In the context of Rubio in particular, it was very much appreciated when he started calling for a toning down of the issue. It's always a good thing when you have elected officials doing that, in particular in the Republican party in calling his own colleagues to do so."
Don't count on it, said Romero, who thinks Republicans may already have lost the battle for Hispanic voters this fall.
"Things have been said, things have been done -- things are being said still," he said. "It's surprising because at a time Republicans could have brought on board many, many Hispanics, they didn't. And they didn't care. It's not like they didn't know what they're doing. They just didn't care