A closer look at Rubio, Cruz and the Latino vote in Nevada

Cruz and Rubio are each children of Cuban immigrants. REUTERS/Jim Young

Nevada is a key swing state. Latinos comprise 17 percent of its eligible voters.

Since Nevada is one of the few battleground states with a high percentage of Latino voters, the results of Tuesday’s Republican caucus will give us the first good indication of the appeal of the GOP field to this important and growing demographic.

As a political scientist who has spent the past 10 years studying Latino elected officials, I believe GOP candidates face several hurdles to winning Latino voters in the 2016 Nevada caucus, Super Tuesday primaries and general election.

Even though two of the three most popular Republican candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are of Cuban descent, there are important barriers that will prevent them from gaining Latinos’ support.

First, the Republican Party is generally not viewed favorably by Latinos. In the 2012 election, Latinos in Nevada overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, 70 to 25 percent.

Second, analysis of data by UCLA Professor Matt Barreto indicates that Rubio’s and Cruz’s favorability ratings with Latinos are limited and no better than other GOP candidates in the general election.

Third, all of the GOP candidates hold policy positions significantly at odds with most Latinos.

Politics of authenticity

A central issue Rubio and Cruz face is how much to emphasize their Latino identity.

On occasion, the two have fallen into a battle over authenticity. During a recent presidential debate, Cruz brought up Rubio’s comments on immigration policy during an earlier Univision interview. Rubio questioned how Cruz could possibly know what he said. “He doesn’t speak Spanish,” Rubio said.

Cruz speaks Spanish.

Latinos watching the debate would have immediately recognized this as a questioning of “how Latino” Cruz actually is. Cruz felt the need to demonstrate his Latinidad by replying to Rubio in Spanish, if awkwardly phrased and grammatically incorrect Spanish. Until this exchange, Cruz had explicitly avoided speaking in Spanish during debates, interviews or his own Spanish-language campaign commercials. Cruz has admitted he does not speak Spanish well.

We should be wary of using Spanish as a litmus test for Latino identity. Research has shown that Latino immigrants are no different from other groups, often becoming monolingual in English by the third generation.

Nevertheless, my work has shown that Spanish plays a critical role in explaining Latino political attitudes. Other scholars have argued it represents a unifying cultural symbol for Latinos. There are also practical elements of being able to speak directly to potential voters who may prefer, or be better able, to learn about politics in Spanish. If Rubio chooses to speak Spanish with these voters, he will have an advantage over the other candidates.

Isolating white Republican voters

Why doesn’t Rubio speak Spanish more often? Likely, it is out of concern over appearing too foreign to white Republican voters.

Writing for FiveThirtyEight, University of Pennsylvania Professor Daniel Hopkins has noted that even the presence of Spanish in balloting materials or newscasts can trigger a backlash among white voters.

Too many attempts to connect to Latino voters, or shift policy positions, may lead white voters to question how assimilated candidates are, or whether their positions are sufficiently conservative.

Both candidates are on a tightrope – trying to appeal to conservative white voters and moderate Latino Republican voters at the same time. If they have to fall in one direction, it will be toward white voters, who outnumber Latino Republicans.

Rubio held more moderate positions initially when he relied on larger numbers of Latino voters in Florida. Now that he is running a national campaign, he is moving to the right on issues – and likely losing Latino support in the process.

What will Latinos think?

In fact, on their campaign websites, neither Rubio nor Cruz refers to himself as Latino. Rather, each carefully calls himself a child of Cuban immigrant/s. Most Latinos in Nevada are of Mexican decent, not Cuban. While Rubio is fluent in Spanish, his full website is not available in Spanish. Glaringly absent are his positions on any policy issues in Spanish.

Cruz has a Spanish website; however, he highlights different issues in English versus Spanish. Notably, Cruz avoids discussion of his strict immigration positions in the Spanish version. He also lists only four issue areas in the Spanish version, while listing nine in the English version.

Scholars have shown the importance of descriptive representation, having representatives of similar race, ethnicity or gender to oneself. Benefits range from increased voting to contact with representatives to trust in government.

However, Rubio and Cruz represent what I have termed “New Latino Republicans.” They are distinct from past Latino legislators with a much looser link between shared ethnicity and policy preferences. While Latino Republicans never looked identical to Latino Democratic representatives, my work shows Latino Republicans were traditionally more active serving Latinos than non-Latino Republicans and even some non-Latino Democrats.

Senators Rubio and Cruz signal a distinct departure in part because they emerged after a significant rightward shift in the Republican Party. Not only have they rarely acted in ways that help Latinos, they have promoted policies that are seen to be harmful to Latino interests.

Both candidates have stated they would eliminate President Obama’s executive actions on immigration creating the DACA and DAPA programs, despite widespread Latino support of the programs. Rubio recently said that the 2013 immigration reform efforts he participated in were “never intended to become law.”

Couple their wider positions on immigration, education, health care and labor (all salient among Latinos) with their way of distancing themselves from Latino identity, and some Latino voters may simply view themselves as not having much in common with Cruz and Rubio.

Latino celebrities like American Ferrera and George Lopez have recently urged Latinos not to vote for any of the GOP candidates because of their anti-immigrant positions and rhetoric.

The question to ask is not whether Rubio or Cruz are Latino “enough.” Rather, it is whether they will act in ways that serve the Latino community. The Latino electorate is far too savvy to cast a vote for either candidate out of ethnic solidarity, if the candidates’ positions on issues contradict Latino interests.