The 2012 elections in the United States saw demographics drive Barack Obama’s re-election victory, as Hispanic voters pushed must-win states for the Republicans like Florida and Colorado into the Democrat column.
The Republicans report that they “got the message” and are focused on ending the Democrat lock on Hispanic voters. But their leading strategy to win Hispanic voters is flimsy and potentially ineffective.
The GOP is turning to a rising star in their party – Marco Rubio – to win the hearts of Hispanics, and with those hearts, states like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
The Florida Senator of Cuban descent was given the high-profile role of responding to President Obama’s State of the Union address. He is lining up organizers and endorsements in the lead up to the 2016 primary season, the so-called “invisible primary” of backroom operators. He is one of a number of Republicans endorsing some form of immigration reform as a gesture of understanding toward Hispanics.
However, it is unlikely if a Hispanic candidate is the solution Republican believe simply based on their heritage.
The latest Quinnipiac survey provides an interesting insight. They match up hypothetical 2016 US Presidential nominees: Hilary Clinton against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Vice President Joe Biden against former VP nominee Paul Ryan; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo against Senator Rubio.
In a hypothetical matchup between Clinton and Rubio, the former Secretary of State wins the Hispanic vote 60 per cent to 24 per cent. This is virtually the same as Clinton vs Christie (62 per cent to 23 per cent) and only slightly better than Paul Ryan (69 per cent to 21 per cent). In addition, this is almost identical to Barack Obama’s approval rating among Hispanic voters (60 per cent to 27 per cent), a good proxy for general partisan alignment at present.
Rubio brings little or nothing to the Republicans efforts to win over Hispanics at present. This condition could change, particularly if Rubio is able to make a convincing case to voters that he offers something new or unique. But at present the case that Hispanics will simply vote for a Hispanic is as empty as it sounds.
There is evidence that the race of a candidate is not an automatic attractor, particularly when the policy agenda of that candidate is not aligned with the historic interests of many of the members of that demographic group.
Colin Powell was a highly touted potential Republican presidential candidate in 1996. Citing a lack of fire in the belly, Powell chose to pass but his name was tested in exit polls when Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole.
Powel’s polling numbers were remarkably high during this era, reflecting a combination of high name recognition, perceived competence and statesmanship, and having never been subjected to any significant partisan criticism, let alone an attack ad.
Even at the peak of his popularity, Powell had very high favourability scores among white voters (73 per cent approval) compared to black voters (57 per cent). This was at a time when the only position most voters knew about Colin Powell was that he was a Republican.
Unsurprisingly, the then-apolitical statesman fared remarkably well against the re-elected President in hypothetical matchups. Clinton actually received 49 per cent of the vote to 41 for Bob Dole and 8 for Ross Perot. However, when voters exiting the polls were asked about a choice between Clinton and Powell, the former General won 50 per cent to 38 per cent.
However, Powell’s win was not fueled by black voters moving to him from Clinton. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Clinton outpolled Powell 2 to 1 among black voters surveyed. It was white voters who shifted decisively to Powell, giving the imaginary Republican a twenty point edge where Dole had barely won that group in reality.
The reality appears to be that voters gauge candidates on what they will do for them and the country. The ethnicity of a candidate can be a rallying point for a “he or she understands me” sentiment, or even a sense of pride in a perceived shared accomplishment.
We saw a significant example of that in Obama’s campaign in 2008, but also in Catholics rallying to Jack Kennedy in 1960 after going to the Republican Eisenhower in the two previous elections.
The challenge is that a candidate’s policy positions can create a significant barrier to cultivate any sense of shared understanding if they are misaligned with the perceived needs of a demographic block.
Marco Rubio may be a Hispanic American. But positions like his interest in defunding Obamacare may drive a wedge between him and the very Hispanic voters he hopes to purse.
Adding complexity, few Hispanics think of themselves as “Hispanics.” Cubans tend to think of themselves as Cuban-Americans; Mexicans as Mexican-Americans; El Salvadorans as Americans of El Salvadoran descent.
Sharing a demographic group with a candidate doesn’t matter if the voters don’t value that relationship or recognize it as preeminent in their identity. Divorcees didn’t rally overwhelmingly to Reagan when he was the first divorced man to seek the Presidency.
This lack of shared cultural affinity means a Cuban-American Senator from Florida may not have the draw to Colorado Mexican-Americans that Republicans hope.
In fact, Cubans tend to hold a unique position in United States politics, fueled by a fierce anti-Communism that can put their issue agenda at odds with that of other voters in the Hispanic demographic cluster.
Overall, it appears that Republicans have identified the right problem in their perceived hostility to Hispanic Americans.
But the leading solution to that problem may not actually work.
Andrew Steele is a social entrepreneur and political observer living in Toronto.