As Republican candidates continue to try to stand out from the pack and win the party’s nomination for president, experts say a young senator from Florida could be the party’s best hope at winning over independent voters.
That senator is Marco Rubio, and his youth and charisma could make him an appealing candidate for younger voters who are tired of partisan politics, said Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“They don’t want politics as usual,” MacManus said. “It looked like Rand Paul was going to grab all that vote, but he’s not in the news much now.”
He also appeals to young voters because of his college debt, MacManus added. The senator had close to $150,000 in student loans by the time he finished law school, and had more than $100,000 left to pay off when he was first elected.
“They think he’s more in tune with them with his own finances,” she said.
Rubio also has another ace up his sleeve — his fluency in Spanish.
“Spanish language media is the fastest, and in some places the biggest, media there is,” MacManus said. “Specifically, TV — and somewhat radio.”
In addition to independents and Latino voters, Rubio is one of three candidates who might be able to play well to various demographics within the GOP’s voting base, said Dario Moreno, associate professor in the department of politics and international relations in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.
“The three I think who have the best opportunity to get the nomination are Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush,” Mareno said. “I think they appeal to the wider sentiment of the party. If you look at the Republican Party as having an establishment wing, a Christian conservative wing and a libertarian wing, they’re the three candidates who appeal to a wider spectrum.”
The three I think who have the best opportunity to get the nomination are Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.Dario Moreno, associate professor at Florida International University
“If you look at poll data in comparison to even someone like Walker, Rubio‘s name recognition is not that high yet,” he said. “The success or failure of his campaign is going to depend on letting people know who he is, what his message is and what his vision is.”
The senator also has managed to successfully fund-raise while avoiding any major faux pas, said Kevin Wagner, associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.
“Rubio has been very effective,” Wagner said. “He hasn’t made any big mistakes, which sometimes is the most important thing this early on. He’s one of the more effective speakers on the stump for Republicans and he has a good amount of money behind him.”
Despite this, the senator does not have an easy path ahead of him. Though supporters may hope he’s a candidate Latino voters can rally behind, many in that demographic have reasons to search for someone else, said Will Miller, director of institutional research at Flagler College.
“Rubio’s name will help swing with Hispanic voters, [but] it would help even more if Jeb Bush was not in the race,” Miller said. “Unlike Rubio, he can point to direct actions he has taken to support Hispanics in Florida from his time as governor. Further, Rubio is not going to appeal to many Hispanics because he has actively fought the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s decisions on amnesty provisions. He may speak the language, but some will see him as a traitor.”
At the same time, the senator also has a record that may contrast well with other GOP candidates — most notably, Donald Trump.
“Rubio has spent the past year focusing on policy areas that just aren’t sexy from a national media standpoint,” Miller said. “Retirement security, higher education reform, and tax policy reform clearly make Rubio the policy wonk of the field — which could end up playing well for him. It’s better to get attention for policy recommendations than publicly berating a war hero, for example.”
But the true test of Rubio’s appeal will come when he takes the debate floor. For all the media attention focused on the candidates, the general public hasn’t yet taken an interest.
“The farther out you are, the less reliable polling numbers are,” Wagner said. “I don’t think a lot of Americans have started paying attention to this race.”