I was recently asked by Sean Hannity if Democrats were scared of Marco Rubio being the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate. The short answer is no. The long answer lies in the fact that Rubio cannot help Republicans solve their “Latino problem.” Rubio is a politico who has two bases of support: Republican Cubans and Tea Partiers. The latter could potentially help the Republican ticket, but a number of other possible vice-presidential candidates also have Tea Party cred. The former, Cubano Republicans, are a small fraction of the Latino population. More importantly, Cubanos vis-à-vis non-Cubano Latinos hold very different political preferences.
As of 2000 Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States. Currently, they make up 16% of the population. Two-thirds of Latinos in this country are of Mexican origin, followed by Puerto Ricans at 9.1%, Salvadorans at 3.5% and Cubans at 3.4%. Cubans are not only a relatively small portion of the Latino population, they are the most geographically concentrated. Close to 70% of Cubans reside in Florida. Cubans stand out from their fellow Latino sub-ethnic groups in a number of different socio-economic indicators. Cubans are on average older, better educated, and have higher incomes and stronger English language skills than their non-Cuban Latino brethren.
The most notable difference among Latinos is that Cubans are the only group that primarily identifies as Republican. In Florida, 63% of Cubans identify as Republicans, 21% as Independents and 16% as Democrats. This stands in stark contrast to Mexicans and Puerto Ricans who identify with the Democratic Party at 65% and 60% respectively. Independent non-Cuban Latinos make up a quarter of the population followed by 10% who identify with the GOP. Cuban and non-Cuban Latinos are almost complete opposites in their partisan allegiances.
Partisan identification is the most reliable predictor of vote choice. The Florida 2010 Senate race was no exception. Rubio received 62% of the Latino vote. More specifically, he cleaned up among the Cuban community, receiving close to 80% of their support. By contrast only four out of 10 non-Cuban Latinos in Florida voted for Rubio. Rubio indeed has overwhelming CUBAN support, but this does not translate into Latino support.
In placing Rubio on the presidential ticket the assumption is that pan-ethnic affiliation will trump partisanship. This is a weak assumption and one that tends to be more the exception than the rule. There are significant cultural and historical differences between Latino subgroups in the United States. To begin, the push/pull factors that brought Cubans to this country are very different than the factors that brought Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans (with the exception of Nicaraguans). Second, the current socio-economic status of Cubans is consistent with the more affluent leaning of the Republican Party. Latinos of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent by contrast are among the poorest individuals in the country.
Partisan cross-over voting can and has occurred in the past. Democratic and Democratic-leaning Latinos have crossed party lines to vote for a Republican candidate. For example, George W. Bush was able to garner a small but noticeable bump in his Latino support. And it was not his Spanish language skills or ethnic surname that got him Latino support. It was his pro-active and laser-focused Latino outreach. Dating back to his days as governor of Texas, Bush and Karl Rove developed Latino outreach through symbolic strategies, but also in promoting legislation that Latinos valued — immigration.