On the surface, Marco Rubio is such a perfect 2016 Republican nominee you might think he was created in a lab. He ticks off all the demographic boxes that the GOP has struggled with for the past decade: A young (43) Latino who likes Tupac! He is adept with social media, talks like a person who watches the same dumb TV as you, and is pleasantly self-deprecatory when the occasion calls for it. Pundits and consultants are giddy with the prospect of a “generational choice” between Rubio and the rest of the field—not to mention Hillary Clinton.
Analysts aren’t wrong to suppose that a race against Rubio, in either the primary or the general, will expose a generational fault line. But it’s far from certain that Rubio will be one with the youth vote on his side.
Take away Rubio’s biography and look at his positions and he becomes less the voice of his generation and more Benjamin Button. If I told you about a candidate that was anti-marriage equality, anti-immigration reform (for now), anti-pot decriminalization, pro-government surveillance, and in favor of international intervention but against doing something about climate change, what would you guess the candidate’s age to be? On all of those issues, Rubio’s position is not the one shared by most young people. The Guardian dubbed him the “John McCain of the millennial set,” which isn’t fair to McCain, who at least has averred that climate change exists.
Indeed, with those opinions, the only demographic Rubio can plausibly claim to represent is old white guys. Well, even old white guys support marriage equality these days—63 percent of all Americans do. But Rubio has the olds on other issues! Americans 65 and older are the only age group with a majority against marijuana decriminalization and the only group who deny anthropogenic climate change; those 50 and older are the only group with a majority that believes the government surveillance “has not gone far enough.”
Advisers have bragged that, unlike other candidates, Rubio would not be “competing for who can be the whitest, oldest rich guy,” a claim which is both obvious and beside the point. Of course, he’s not competing to be a rich old white guy, but he’d be a fool not to be competing for the whitest, oldest rich guys. Staking his nomination on the non-white or youth voters of the Republican Party would be a comically doomed strategy: The GOP primary electorate is 95 percent white. In every state with an early primary (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida), over half of those who cast Republican votes are over the age of 50. (In Florida, 70 percent of primary voters are over 50.)
Indeed, the Rubio team’s assuredness about his youthful appeal may come from the fact that they’re all in Florida. Winning “the youth vote” in Florida amounts to sweeping the retirement communities rather than the nursing homes.
What’s more, Rubio has competition to be one of the non-whitest, youngest guys in the GOP’s crowded field: There is at least one honorary Hispanic (Jeb Bush) and one black candidate (Ben Carson), and several who are close to Rubio in age: Scott Walker (47), Rand Paul (52), Ted Cruz (44).
The redeeming quality of Rubio’s “youth strategy”—why it just might work!—is that it is fundamentally insincere. Which is to say, he’s not competing for the youth vote at all—he’s competing for the old rich white guys who think they know what the youth of the country want.
All those electoral post-mortems have apparently convinced at least a few of the GOP’s decision-makers that they are no longer the most influential demographic in America. But they didn’t finish reading those reports, I guess, because they don’t seem to realize why they aren’t as influential. They think it’s just about age and race, and so we get Republicans in mid-life-crisis mode, without thinking through what issues made young people reject them.
This is the latest in conservative identity politics, a facile assumption that all you need to do to win someone’s vote is to run someone that looks a little like them. But millennials in particular have proven to be demographic-agnostic when it comes to picking their heroes and spokespeople. They’ve made meme-worthy icons of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Betty White. A recent survey found that the business person millennials most admire to be Bill Gates (59), not Mark Zuckerberg. In politics, it was John F. Kennedy, who might considered permanently young, but he surely doesn’t represent the future.
As far attracting young voters, Rubio’s campaign will probably go about as well as most old-people-try-to-guess-what-the-young-people-want strategies go. Marco Rubio is the GOP’s Cousin Oliver, a desperate gimmick by the out-of-touch to spark interest in a moribund brand. That Rubio is a gleeful participant in this exercise makes his distance from the actual dreams and desires of this country’s young people all the more apparent.