If Mitt Romney can hold back the energized Ron Paul faction's tenacious bid for a brokered convention in Tampa, he'll be free to focus his remaining energy on uniting Republican voters behind his candidacy and convincing Democratic and Independent voters, especially in key swing states, to abandon the candidate they swept into the White House in 2008 and vote Romney 2012.
Because of his perceived value to a Romney ticket in November, Republican strategists and talking heads-- not to mention every signal from Mitt Romney himself-- suggest that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is at the very top of the list for prospective VPs should Mitt Romney win the Republican nomination. In terms of general election strategy, the conventional wisdom is that Marco Rubio would represent a powerful trifecta of strategic advantages that widely broaden Mitt Romney's appeal to voters, including voting groups that were instrumental to Obama's victory in 2008 such as Latino voters and Independent voters.
Marco Rubio's Rise to National Prominence
Marco Rubio, the handsome, fresh-faced Junior Senator from Florida, who rode into Washington for the first time in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party activism, has been groomed for the national spotlight for some time by the Republican establishment and the neoconservative faction of the GOP that comprises it. The Miami native has a close relationship with two-term Florida governor, Jeb Bush, who he considers one of his most important political mentors and who recently endorsed him as "probably the best" candidate for Vice President.
As far back as mid-2009, Marco Rubio, then still just a state legislator, appeared on the cover of The National Review with the caption, "Yes, HE CAN." Then in February of 2010, Rubio delivered the keynote address at CPAC, an unlikely honor and unusually prominent speaking role for a mere state legislator, but not for someone who the party establishment was deliberately grooming for a career in national politics. The entire process of Rubio's national unveiling and sudden rise from the obscurity of a state legislature to the prominence of the U.S. Senate and a role as national poster boy for movement conservatism-- is strongly reminiscent of then state legislator, Barack Obama's sudden rise to prominence in 2004 as a national figure in the Democratic Party, a parallel clearly not lost on The National Review.
In March, Daniel Larison observed at The American Conservative:
"I can’t recall a recent example where there was so much activist and pundit support for a possible VP nominee so early, especially when the politician in question wasn’t a presidential a candidate."
Re-Branding The Republican Party
The Republican establishment has likely been planning all along for Marco Rubio's newly-wrought star power to help it re-brand the GOP as young, energetic, small-government, and friendly to minorities-- but without actually rocking the boat too much with any serious talk of substantive policy reform, a role that Rubio has made clear in speeches and interviews that he is happy to play. If the GOP establishment actually wanted to reform its party instead of merely re-branding the conservatism of the Bush years to win elections, it might not be so hostile to the youth, energy, small-government principles, and minority-friendly policies of the burgeoning Ron Paul movement.
Marco Rubio's aforementioned trifecta of branding advantages, as perceived by so many pundits and strategists, are these:
1) Marco Rubio is from Florida, a coveted swing-state with a whopping 29 electoral college votes in the 2012 presidential election.
2) Marco Rubio won his US Senate bid with the help of the Tea Party, and is nationally-recognized as a Tea Party Republican.
3) Marco Rubio is a Latino of Cuban ancestry.
The convergence of these factors, especially in a lawmaker from Florida, makes a Romney/Rubio ticket seem compelling. Mitt Romney, who has held the Tea Party at arm's length throughout his campaign and whose record as governor might fail the small-government litmus test of many Tea Party conservatives, could strengthen his base of support with a unity ticket featuring a fresh face associated with the Tea Party. Though Rubio's heavy association with establishment Republicans and their platform could call his reform credentials into question, he just might be acceptable enough for Tea Party voters by simply not being Mitt Romney (just like he was acceptable to them in 2010 by simply not being Charlie Crist).
The Polling Data and Latino Voters
While Florida's votes and Tea Party support for a Romney-Rubio ticket may still be up in the air, the polling data reveal that Latino voters are not likely to be swayed by Senator Rubio's Latino background. As noted in The Guardian, "In his 2010 run for Senate, Rubio ran 10 points weaker among non-Cuban Latinos, at 40%, than among Floridians at large (50%)." In their rush for a minority standard-bearer to cull Latino voters, Republican and conservative analysts have displayed a stunning lack of nuance and sensitivity (a "tin ear" as pundits say) to the difference between Cuban Latinos and non-Cuban Latinos.
As also noted by The Guardian:
"Cubans arriving in the US are given political asylum, which makes them less far less likely to be sympathetic on the immigration debate to undocumented immigrants. According to a 2006 Pew Research poll, Cubans were twice as likely to see undocumented immigration as hurting the United States than Latinos of Mexican origin."
Meanwhile, a poll released last month by Public Policy Polling found that with Marco Rubio on the ticket, Mitt Romney actually did worse among Latino voters in Florida than he would without Marco Rubio, with Obama/Biden beating Romney/Rubio for the Sunshine State 51 to 44. The same study found that other Republicans of Latino ancestry who have been getting some VP buzz also fail to defeat the Obama/Biden ticket among Latino voters in their own home states, with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval losing Latino voters in his own home state to the Obama/Biden ticket (64 to 27) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez likewise losing among Latino voters in her own home state (65 to 28).
The Etch A Sketch Ticket
Though one of Mitt Romney's top advisers assured a news anchor on national television that Romney's Republican Primary rhetoric was not really serious and could be erased after the primary "like an Etch A Sketch" in favor of more popular positions during the general election, Latino voters are clearly taking Mitt Romney's restrictive immigration positions seriously, including his support for a US-Mexico border fence, his opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and his support for forcibly deporting many of the nation's undocumented immigrants within the first 90 days of a Romney Administration.
The empirics show that even with a Latino on his ticket, Mitt Romney would fail to capture even Latino voters in any of the likely choices' own home states. Latino voters are probably worried that a candidate who would "Etch A Sketch" positions he held during the primary just to win might also "Etch A Sketch" positions he held during the general election just to win. Adding a Latino to the ticket while espousing policies and using rhetoric that Latino voters find offensive seems like cynical pandering. If that Latino turns out to be Senator Marco Rubio, whose own immigration proposal stops short of providing amnesty or citizenship and dictates to Latino families just what kind of American Dream they're supposed to pursue (university education or military service), the polls show Latino voters will be even less likely to punch the ballot for Romney.
The problem with a Marco Rubio pick is that his selection would only typify all of Mitt Romney's weaknesses, rather than strengthen them. Potentially for Tea Party voters and definitely for Latino voters, Rubio would only help the bottom of the Republican ticket to match the top in terms of the key criticisms it has faced so far: style over substance, party over policy, and personality over principles.