Rubio and Cruz: The GOP's Latino Dream … or Nightmare?

Rubio and Cruz: The GOP's Latino Dream … or Nightmare?

Why you should care

Because this is the closest we’ve gotten to the first Latino president.

Today, just days before Super Tuesday’s primary-voting bonanza, two of the top three Republican contenders are Cuban-American. And the GOP is mere months, perhaps, from selecting the first Latino nominee for president of either major party, the closest we’ve come since Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits won in 2006, albeit in the fictional TV series The West Wing. Marco Rubio overtly flirted with Latino voters on Tuesday, announcing his Puerto Rican leadership team while raising his rags-to-riches story of growing up with modest immigrant parents. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz has been touting his Latin chops, even dropping a few sentences in Spanish during a recent debate.

So it’s a given, then, that Cruz or Rubio could ride a wave of Latino enthusiasm to the Oval Office should Donald Trump stumble, right? Not necessarily. In a general election, most Latino voters are still more likely to side with Democrats. And while both Rubio and Cruz have been lauded as solutions to the pasty party’s diversity problem, consider this: Despite their heritage, neither Rubio nor Cruz is appreciably better liked than other GOP candidates, according to polling data analyzed by UCLA professor Matt Barreto before the election cycle began.

In fact, the Latino front-runners became less liked the more Latino voters learned about them, Barreto’s study found.

Consider also that during Nevada’s Republican caucus on Tuesday, the candidates actually trailed Trump by double digits among Latinos. Not bad for a blustery billionaire who won handily and boasts he will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. (Even so, a national Washington Post-Univision survey released yesterday, and cited during last night’s debate, found that 8 in 10 Hispanic voters had an unfavorable view of Trump — more than double the percentage of any other candidate, including Democrats.)

The problem for Republicans in Latino-rich, general-election swing states such as Nevada are myriad, says Sophia Jordán Wallace, a Rutgers University political scientist who has studied Latino candidates for the past decade. The Republican Party still has a perception problem that goes deeper than skin — Mitt Romney got only a quarter of their vote in the 2012 race, for instance, and favorable last names aren’t enough to turn that kind of deficit around immediately. And their conservative policies are still perceived as being at odds with the direct interests of most Latinos. As Rubio told Fox News commentator Juan Williams several years ago: “It’s very hard to make the economic argument to people who think you want to deport their grandmother.”

It’s actually Rubio who might have the best shot at broadening his appeal should he become the nominee, says Wallace. While Rubio speaks fluent Spanish, Cruz calls his own knack for the language “lousy.” More important, Rubio has shown a willingness to work on comprehensive immigration reform (though he supported withdrawing his so-called Gang of Eight bill, which worked with Democrats to create a legal path to citizenship). Cruz has done no such thing; if anything, he’s been ramping up calls for mass deportations in recent weeks.

Yet, it’s unclear how much either candidate will really emphasize his heritage going forward, “given the costs of doing so,” Wallace says. Indeed, if Rubio and Cruz try too hard to relate to Latinos in the general election, they risk alienating white voters, who still make up the vast majority at the ballot box. Then there’s the looming question of Trump, who still leads all national polls by a hefty margin. The irony, in the end, is that the U.S. might not get its first Latino nominee because it has one minority candidate too many. After all, they each vie for conservative and white collar votes. The result? “Cruz and Rubio are stuck in a game of chicken,” says Ben Berger, a political scientist at Swarthmore College, “which puts Trump in the catbird seat.”

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