The rapid rise of Florida Senator Marco Rubio makes one thing clear about the Republican Party: They’ve convinced themselves that outreach (or the lack thereof) is their issue with Latinos. Solve the communications problem—with gentler language and high-status Hispanic politicians—and you’ll solve the electoral problem. It’s why Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has committed himself to making the network more friendly to Latino voters—an abrupt shift for a place that refers to immigrants as “illegal aliens”—and why Rubio will give his State of the Union response in English and Spanish.
None of this is bad. The GOP’s new push to win Latino voters includes growing support for comprehensive immigration reform, which will be a huge humanitarian boon to millions of undocumented immigrants if it’s passed. But Republicans are fooling themselves if they think this will fix their problem with Latino voters or if they think immigration is the beginning and end of the issue.
The Democratic advantage with Hispanics didn’t begin with President Obama—it goes back as far as the 1980 election, when Jimmy Carter won 56 percent of Latinos even as he suffered a landslide loss to Ronald Reagan. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis repeated the performance in 1984 and 1988, respectively. Mondale won 66 percent of Latinos—despite his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan—and Michael Dukakis finished with 70-percent support. On average, from 1980 to 2004, Democratic presidential candidates finished with more than 60-percent support from Hispanic voters. Obama overperformed the average, but not by much.
It’s not hard to discern the reason for this Democratic advantage: Across generations, self-identified Latino voters are more liberal than their white counterparts. The most recent poll from the Pew Research Hispanic Center is illuminating. First-generation Hispanics support “big government” by an 81 percent to 12 percent margin, followed by second-generation Latinos (72–22) and third generation ones (58–36). Overall, 75 percent of Hispanics say they support bigger government with more services, compared with 41 percent of the general population. Fifty-one percent say abortion should be legal, and 59 percent say “homosexuality should be accepted by society.”
Compare this to the actual rhetoric of Rubio and other Latino Republicans. Immigration aside, the Florida senator’s sympathies lie with Tea Party-type Republicans. He voted against the GOP’s recent measure to raise the debt ceiling through May, he voted for—and still supports—a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, he signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, and he signed on to Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s bill that would give employers the right to deny birth-control coverage to their employees for reasons of “conscience.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz is even worse—his short tenure has been defined by aggressive attacks on the administration, rooted in extreme right-wing ideology.
If comprehensive immigration includes a path to citizenship, the most likely political outcome is a large new group of Democratic voters in states—like Arizona and Texas—that are critical to the GOP’s national aspirations. Bringing these voters into the national mainstream is vital work, but it won’t do much to benefit the Republican Party. According to Latino Decisions, just 31 percent of Hispanics say they would be more likely to support Republicans if they took a lead role in immigration reform—that’s no guarantee of anything.
Put another way, Latinos might be proud of having their own in the Senate, but pan-ethnic pride isn’t a substitute for substantive representation. So far, the GOP is lacking.