Senator Marco Rubio's quick ascent in Republican politics, as Jonathan Chait has pointed out, is the product of a convenient, simplistic electoral calculus: Mitt Romney lost partly because his opposition to immigration reform alienated an historic percentage of Latino voters. So who better to lead the GOP than Rubio, a charismatic Latino who promises to reverse the party's stance on immigration reform?
It easy to see why this explanation, repeated by certain media outlets, appeals to Republicans, since it offers the hope of returning to the White House without caving on core conservative principles—and without the divisive soul-searching demanded by the likes of Rand Paul, Chris Christie, or Jon Huntsman. But it might not save them from defeat in 2016. The GOP's problems extend well beyond Latino voters, and the problems the party does have with Latino voters run far deeper than the ethnicity of GOP candidates or its stance on immigration reform. In fact, Rubio's appeal risks trapping the GOP within the coffin of the Bush coalition at a time when they need to figure out how to break out of it.
A Cuban American nominee who supports immigration reform would indeed help the GOP among Latino voters, but would it produce significant gains? Although immigration reform might act as a gateway issue for Hispanics, it's far from the only reason that Hispanics support Democratic candidates. After all, there was nothing unusual about Obama's support among Latinos. President Bill Clinton did even better among Latinos in 1996 than Obama did in 2008 and 2012, and George W. Bush only won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, despite his focus on education—a top issue among Latinos—and his home state's high Hispanic population. The reasons why Latinos are a Democratic constituency are well-documented: They believe in an activist government; they're not nearly as religiously conservative as Republicans think (a majority now support gay marriage); and they generally low incomes, which correlates with support for Democratic candidates.
Rubio's Cuban ancestry might appeal to some Latino voters, but prior elections suggest that nominating a Cuban American isn't a sure way for Republicans to make inroads into Hispanic communities. In 2012, Texas Republicans nominated Ted Cruz—like Rubio, a Cuban American with tea party support1—for U.S. Senate. In November, Cruz outperformed Romney in counties with large Hispanic (mainly Mexican-American) populations, but did so by modest margins: 2 percentage points in Hidalgo County, home to McAllen; 3 points in El Paso; 1 point better in Houston's Harris County; nearly 4 points in rural Starr County, the most heavily Hispanic county (96 percent) in the country; and a more substantial 9 points in Webb County, home to Laredo. But Cruz didn't perform any better than Romney in Dallas or San Antonio's Bexar County, and he performed much worse than Bush did in 2000 and 2004.
Rubio's own performance in 2010, when he was elected to the Senate, is harder to judge. Not only was it an off-year election, making it difficult to distinguish changes in off-year turnout from actual shifts among voters, but it was also a three-way race with Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek. Even so, it's worth noting that Rubio outperformed Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott in Florida's Latino-heavy counties—not only 3 points better in Miami-Dade, home to the country’s largest Cuban population, but also 3 points better in heavily Puerto Rican Osceola county, and 5 points better in Orange County—even though Scott and Rubio both received approximately 49 percent of the statewide vote.
Could the combination of Rubio's ethnicity and his support for immigration reform yield the gains Republicans need? Not likely, if the GOP plans on winning from those gains alone. The president won by nearly 4 points last November and, according to the exit polls, Latinos represented just 10 percent of the electorate. Gaining a net-4 points out of 10 percent of the electorate is extremely difficult—it would require the Republicans to gain 20 points among Latino voters, if all other groups are held constant. In other words, it would require the GOP to draw a higher percentage of the Latino vote than ever before. Worse still, the Electoral College reduces the significance of Latino voters, who are concentrated in uncompetitive states and play a negligible role in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and the other Midwestern battlegrounds. Even in states where Latinos play a more significant role, like Colorado, Obama's margins of victory were too great for Republican to expect that gains among Hispanics would flip the state red.
Republicans, of course, won't just count on gains among Latino voters: Barring another black Democratic nominee, black turnout is expected to drop in 2016. But even if it does, and the GOP retains its historic gains among southern and Appalachian white voters, the next Republican candidate will probably need 40 percent of the Latino vote just to create a dead heat. It's also possible that a Rubio candidacy would shed some of the GOP's gains among white voters, especially if Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton. Republican Senate candidates, including Ted Cruz, for instance, performed worse than Romney across most of white, rural Texas, especially in the historically Democratic areas won by Bill Clinton.
Although Rubio is a charismatic candidate, personal appeal might only allow him to maximize his support within the Bush coalition, not break out of it. In 2008, candidate Obama was wildly popular and ran on a post-partisan platform. Despite his broad appeal, most of Obama's gains came from higher support and turnout from core Democratic constituents. Many of Obama's other gains—like among Midwestern whites—can be attributed to the poor economy. But while sweeping demographic changes and a large number of untapped young and black voters meant that Obama had plenty of room to build-upon Kerry's base of support, it's harder to argue that Rubio has similar opportunities—unless there's a mass of latent, Republican-leaning Hispanics itching to turn out for a Rubio candidacy.
In the best-case scenario, Rubio's attractive candidacy and appeal among Latinos might allow the Republican nominee to match Romney's historic performance among white voters and exceed 40 percent of the Latino vote. But while that would have given George W. Bush a clean win eight years ago, a similar performance might only allow Rubio to win by an extremely narrow margin. Demographic changes have shifted in the Democrats' favor, and even exceptional performances by candidates attempting to reassemble the Bush coalition may no longer prove sufficient to win national elections. From this perspective, Rubio's electoral appeal isn't just limited, but dangerous to Republicans. It threatens to stifle the GOP's incipient reckoning with the party's appeal and its attempt to build a new and more viable electoral pathway for Republicans.