Vice President Marco Rubio?

Will Rubio’s Cuban background be enough to tip the balance of Latino votes in Romney’s favour?

Senator Marco Rubio may supplement Romney's presidential campaign in terms of garnering Latino support and because of his foreign policy credentials which Romney lacks [GALLO/GETTY]
Senator Marco Rubio may supplement Romney's presidential campaign in terms of garnering Latino support and because of his foreign policy credentials which Romney lacks [GALLO/GETTY]

Scranton, PA – Now that Mitt Romney has all but locked up the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential election, speculation has turned towards his potential running mates. Romney and his team have several candidates to choose from including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. Another name on the short-list of vice presidential candidates and the one who holds the most interest for those who study Latin America is Marco Rubio, an “up and coming” Republican Senator from Florida.

Rubio is an attractive candidate because he represents Florida, a swing state that Republicans hope to win back in November. Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain by 2.5 percentage points in 2008, four years after George W Bush beat Senator John Kerry by 5 percentage points. Rubio was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2000 and served as its speaker from 2007-2009.

Rubio is now completing his first-term in Washington, DC following a surprising victory in the 2010 senatorial elections. Rubio won a three-way race with 49 per cent against former Republican Governor Charlie Crist (who ran as an independent) and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek. Given how close this year’s presidential election is likely to be, a popular Florida senator could give Republicans the push they need to capture the state’s 27 electoral votes.

As they do in other states, several polls have Romney and President Obama in a statistical tie in Florida. Former Governor Jeb Bush could also give Romney a boost but he has been more forceful in denying any interest in the vice presidential slot.

Senator Rubio is also an attractive candidate because of his Cuban heritage. He would become the first Latino to run on a presidential ticket and his selection might help Republicans recover Latino support. Latinos are one of the fastest growing minority populations in the United States and there is good reason to believe Latino voters might decide who wins in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.

Latino support?

Exit polling indicates that President Obama won the Latino vote 67 per cent to 31 per cent over McCain in the last election. April 2012 polls from Pew Research (67 per cent to 27 per cent) and Quinnipiac University (64 per cent to 24 per cent) give Obama similar advantages over Romney among Latino voters. Republicans might have to win back some of these votes if they want to win back the White House.

While the Republican Party has done little to win Latino support with their nativist campaign rhetoric and proposed anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere, neither has President Obama done much when it comes to the high profile issue of immigration. Obama did not make comprehensive immigration reform or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (better known as the DREAM Act) a priority. The DREAM Act would have provided a path to citizenship for over one million undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as minors after they had satisfied a number of conditions, including completing a college degree or serving time in the US military.

Obama has instead touted the fact that his administration has deported over 1.3 million undocumented immigrants during the first three years of his four year term. Rubio opposes the DREAM Act and instead promotes an alternative piece of legislation that might grant over one million undocumented college grads “legal residency, but no citizenship”.

Having a Latino on the ticket might help Republicans stem the bleeding from their attacks against Latinos. However, it is unclear whether Latinos whose families descended from Mexico and Central and South America will be persuaded to vote for a Cuban American because of a shared ethnic identity which is something Republicans would be hoping for.

According to Dan Hopkins, an assistant professor of political science who writes at The Monkey Cage, preliminary data indicate that Cubans and Puerto Ricans might be influenced by a Cuban American candidate. However, there’s little evidence that Americans of Mexican descent are likely to be persuaded by a Cuban American candidate. In that case, while including Rubio on the ticket might help the Republicans pick up support in Florida his selection might not influence other heavily populated Latino states in any significant way.

US-Latin America relations

Although generally limited, Rubio’s foreign policy credentials might also help Romney, a candidate with few of his own. Rubio serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Foreign Relations Committee. He recently gave a speech at the Brookings Institution where he spoke strongly in favour of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and voiced his support for unilateral US intervention in the affairs of other countries. In his Brookings speech as well as an April Los Angeles Times op-ed, Rubio also emphasised the United States’ relationship with Latin America. Senator Rubio argued that the US should pay closer attention to events in Latin America, a region that “holds significant strategic interest for the US – as well as enormous promise”.

“It’s unlikely that Latin America will play much of a role in this year’s election. Both Latino and non-Latino voters will be mostly concerned about the economy.

It should takes steps toward “building a democratic movement, enhancing trade and economic ties, cooperating on energy issues and building and strengthening security alliances.” When asked to respond to certain measures taken by House Republicans dealing with Latin America, Rubio has been reluctant to support them. He is not ready to cut funding for the Organization of American States or to add Venezuela to the State Department’s list of “terrorist nations”.

Rubio has also called on the US to support “fledgling democracies” such as those in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia – that’s right, only countries with which the US does not get along. Even though Senator Rubio’s words do seem quite reasonable compared to statements made by other prominent Republicans when discussing Latin America, that’s not good enough.

Greg Weeks, a professor of political science who blogs at Two Weeks Notice, observes, “Regardless of what you think about each particular issue, the overall tone is not really one of engagement, as there is virtually no discussion about what Latin American countries want.”

Promoting a hemispheric free trade agreement, greater diplomatic and economic isolation of Cuba, and being on the lookout for Iranian agents operating in the hemisphere are not issues that top the list that Latin American leaders care about. To Republican voters and many Americans, Rubio’s op-ed is like to come off as a sensible approach to engagement with Latin America. However, if implemented, his policies would not improve relations between the US and the countries of Latin America but in all likelihood worsen them. As Greg Weeks concludes, “The irony is that policies intended to demonstrate we “care” (his [Rubio’s] word) can actually lead to greater isolation.”

Controversy over spending

A more important concern for Romney is that while Rubio can speak with some authority on US foreign policy towards Latin America, it unlikely to be an area of expertise that would influence many Americans in November. Given the Republican primary and President Obama’s interests, it’s unlikely that Latin America will play much of a role in this year’s election. Both Latino and non-Latino voters will be mostly concerned about the economy. And if they do consider foreign policy before casting their vote, voters are likely to weigh matters in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in what used to be called the war on terror.

While Senator Rubio has not yet received the media’s full scrutiny, there are already a few issues that are troublesome. First, for his entire political career, Rubio went around sharing his family’s story about escaping Cuba following the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. His family’s history resonated strongly with the Cuban American population in Miami and elsewhere in Florida. Like them, he was the “son of exiles”. However, Marco Rubio’s parents left Cuba in 1956 – two-and-one-half years before the revolution. It turns out that the Rubio family story is similar to those of other Latino immigrants. They were economic migrants who came to the United States to realise the American dream at a time when their country was ruled by a US-backed authoritarian dictator.

Senator Rubio’s religious background will also come up. After spending his early years as a practicing Catholic, Mr Rubio was baptised a Mormon when his family lived in Las Vegas for a time. He returned to the Catholic faith later. There is nothing scandalous in his religious background, but Romney’s camp is most likely considering the implications of a Mormon presidential candidate and a one-time Mormon vice presidential candidate.      

Finally, two issues related to his time in the Florida House could derail a Rubio vice presidential nomination. Former Florida House member David Rivera of Miami is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for alleged campaign finance irregularities. Although state prosecutors decided not to pursue charges, they concluded that Rivera had lived off campaign contributions for several years.

Rivera is a longtime friend of Rubio and the two men even owned a house together that went into foreclosure when both men were living in Tallahassee, Florida. Even with all the controversy surrounding Rivera, Rubio hosted a fundraiser for him last week. The second Florida House scandal involves Mr Rubio’s use of his state party’s credit card for personal expenses. Rubio racked up over US $100,000 on the card between 2006 and 2008 claiming that the vast majority of the total was “official party business”.

At this point in time, it doesn’t appear that Rubio will bring much to the ticket for Mitt Romney. It is not certain that he will help the Republican Party with Latino voters, a population that they have spent years successfully alienating. Rubio’s foreign policy knowledge, specifically towards Latin America, is unlikely to persuade Americans to switch their vote from Obama to Romney.

While I am all for the US government working more closely with our hemispheric neighbours to resolve pressing social, political, economic and security challenges, it is just not an issue that strongly resonates with US voters. It’s also not clear that Rubio’s position towards approaching Latin America is going to be effective one that advances an agenda that benefits either the United States or the people of Latin America.

At the end of the day, Mitt Romney needs to decide whether Marco Rubio is the best person to help the US should he win in November and the best person to replace him should he be unable to complete his four-year term. Obviously, it depends on who the other short list candidates are, but in 2012 it sure looks like Romney should pass on Rubio.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American Politics here.

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