Well, 14 more Republicans announced their candidacies, but clearly, Marco Rubio was the It Boy on the Republican side this week. It started last weekend with a Times article advancing the idea that Rubio as the GOP nominee is a “scary thought” for Democrats for all the reasons you can reckon on your own—he’s Latino, he’s young, he’s charismatic, he has a “million-dollar smile” (not kidding!), and of course he might be able to defeat her in “vital” Florida with its 29 electoral votes.
Mmmm, okay. He is most certainly Latino and young, not much arguing with those. He is reasonably charismatic. He has about a $627,000 smile, which isn’t a million (a little too on the boyish and elfin sides to project the proper Reaganesque, enemy-smiting mien) but isn’t peanuts.
I would add other and I think even more substantive claims for him. He’s not stupid, in policy terms, and more to the point isn’t intentionally stupid, constantly playing down to his most rigid base’s lowest common denominator. He does that only about 78 percent of the time, which in the context of today’s GOP is almost impressive. I could picture a President Rubio dragging the party to a couple of places where most of it really would prefer not to go. Not a lot of places, but a couple, which is two more than most of them would do.
But is Rubio really Clinton’s nightmare candidate? First of all, let’s say this. Elections are far less about the dollar value of smiles and whether a candidate colors her hair than journalists would like to think. They’re more about what the political scientists call “the fundamentals,” by which they mainly mean the economy. If the economy is still chugging along in the fall of 2016, creating 225,000 jobs a month—and by that time, if the streak holds, wages would probably be going up as well—then nobody is Clinton’s nightmare. All right, two other ifs: no terrorist attack, and no giant, quid-pro-quo Clinton scandal. If all that holds the only drama ought to be whether she tops 350 electoral votes.
But if all that doesn’t hold, then we have a race. I suppose Rubio is as plausible as any of them and more than most of them. But let’s stop and take a look at the bases of these nightmare claims. There are two.
The first is that he’ll compete with her among Latinos. The data point you’ll often see invoked here is that when first running for Senate in 2010, Rubio drew 55 percent of the Latino vote against two opponents. That he did. But here are two reasons that impressive number doesn’t necessarily translate to a presidential race.
Number one, neither of his opponents that year had much going for them among Latinos. Independent Charlie Crist wasn’t really trusted by anyone because of his party flipping, and Democrat Kendrick Meek just never fired, as they say in the horse-racing business. Number two, voters understand, Latino voters included, that a vote for senator and a vote for president aren’t the same kind of vote. For the Senate, independent and even a few Democratic Latinos would be more willing to cast an “identity” vote, just for the sake of seeing one of their own (more or less their own, since there are many different kinds of Latinos in Florida) in the Senate. The candidate’s positions matter, of course, but if voters know he’s only one of 100 in a body that never does much anyway, positions aren’t dispositive.
But a presidential vote is a different thing. There, you’d better believe positions matter. And here, Rubio has the same problems with Latino voters all the Republicans have.
Spend a few minutes on this web page, brought to you by the Seattle-based Latino Decisions. The polling I’m about to cite is from last November, so things may have changed. But still. It’s a bucket of icy water on the nightmare thesis.
Rubio favorable-unfavorable among Latinos: 31-36. Rubio favorable-unfavorable among Latinos in Florida: 39-42. In seven states with sizable Latino voting blocs, Rubio was underwater in six of them (all but Texas). Oh, and in six of the seven states (all but Florida), Clinton’s favorable numbers among Latinos were more than twice Rubio’s.
Why would this be? Are Latinos uniquely immune to the charms of high dollar-value smiles? No. The answer is his positions. Latinos support a path to citizenship, President Obama’s executive actions, and Obamacare. Rubio opposes them all. Those positions, especially on immigration, are deal breakers for a big majority of Latino voters, most of whom don’t feel an intense natural bonhomie for Cuban-Americans, who’ve always been seen to occupy a different political space from Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Central Americans.
Now as I say that was last November. Things have probably shifted a little in his direction since then, just because some people may have forgotten his lame immigration reversal. I called four pollsters to try to get current numbers on Clinton vs. Rubio head-to-head among Latinos, but oddly, none had anything current based on large enough sample sizes. If we start to see such numbers and Rubio is within 15 points or so, then Clinton should worry a little. But the overall numbers, in which she has essentially the same narrow-ish lead over Rubio that she has over everyone else, don’t suggest that he’s doing much better among the small subsets of Latinos in these polls than any other Republican is.
And now, to our second point (remember, there was a second point way up there!): “vital” Florida. I really wish people who write about politics would bother to understand the electoral map. This is a longer conversation and another column but please remember: Florida is vital to Republicans, but it’s gravy for Democrats. Obama won Florida in 2012, but if he’d lost it, he’d still have received 303 electoral votes.
Think of it this way: The Republican can win all the normal red states plus the violet quartet of Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada, as well as Iowa and New Hampshire—two states that have gone Republican just once each since 1992—and still have only 262 electoral votes. The Democrat can afford to lose Florida and still have a number of paths to 270. The Republican cannot.
Rubio has some strengths the others don’t. But if all this adds up to a nightmare, I’d think Clinton is sleeping pretty well at night.