Rubio's pollster: If the GOP doesn't win more than 40% of the Latino vote next year, they'll lose the election

Alternate headline: “GOP loses election.”

“A Republican nominee is going to need to be somewhere in the mid-forties, or better, among Hispanic voters,” Ayres said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. The pollster noted that his candidate is “extraordinarily talented” and could be “transformational” in expanding the GOP’s appeal.

That would represent a quantum leap from 2012, when Romney won just 27 percent of Latinos—a major reason for his electoral drubbing at the hands of President Barack Obama. Romney’s abysmal numbers were even a drop-off from John McCain, who took 31 percent of Latinos against Obama in 2008…

Ayres predicts that Republicans will need to win “somewhere around 30 percent, almost a third, of the nonwhite vote overall” to take back the White House in 2016. With black and Asian voters trending sharply away from the GOP, Ayres says claiming a significant share of Latinos is the key to reaching that 30 percent mark. “Unless you count on the Republican getting Ronald Reagan-like numbers among whites,” Ayres said, “you’re going to have to be somewhere in the mid-forties with Hispanics.” (Reagan won 66 percent of whites en route to his historic 49-state victory in 1984.)

Not just 40 percent, mind you — “in the mid-forties, or better.” Are there any Republican candidates out there who might conceivably have special appeal to Latinos, enough so to radically improve on Romney’s share of the Latino vote? Why, yes, says Ayres — as it happens, his client, Marco Rubio, is “the Michael Jordan of American politics.” Which, after the Gang of Eight debacle, would be true only if Jordan had torn his arm off in his first slam-dunk contest.

To put in perspective for you what Ayres is asking here, only once since 1976 has a Republican candidate for president exceeded 40 percent of the Latino vote. That was George W. Bush, who pulled it off in 2004 when he won 44 percent. Conventional wisdom among political media is that Dubya’s conspicuous support for amnesty was a major reason he was able to make those inroads with Latino voters. But Bush didn’t make a serious push for immigration reform until two years into his second term, after he’d been reelected. In 2000, despite a record of good relations with Latinos as governor of Texas, he pulled just 35 percent of the Latino vote against Al Gore — a respectable number by current GOP standards but well short of what the legend would have you believe about the Bush’s family special rapport with Latinos. (George H.W. Bush pulled 30 and 25 percent of the Latino vote in 1988 and 1992, respectively. Reagan, who utterly destroyed Mondale in 1984, never did better than 37 percent among Latinos. Republicans actually lost seven points among that group between ’84 and ’88 even though Reagan signed his famous amnesty for illegals in 1986.) The likelier explanation for Bush’s bump in 2004 was that 9/11 and the Iraq war were “black swan” events that made that race a rare referendum on foreign policy; Latino voters were likely more evenly divided about foreign policy than they were on domestic policy, which helped Bush narrow the gap with Kerry. There’s a chance that Obama’s foreign-policy disaster will do something similar for the party next year, but (a) any GOP nominee would benefit from that, not just a Latino candidate like Rubio, and (b) Hillary will work hard to run away from Obama’s record in various ways. She’s already known as more of a hawk than he is, so she’ll have some credibility when she says she disagrees with him on numerous points. And no matter how bad the Middle East and Ukraine get over the next 20 months, it’s unlikely that anything will happen that’s as wrenching to Americans as 9/11 was. It took the biggest terror attack in American history and the biggest war since Vietnam to put foreign policy front and center in 2004. Let’s hope nothing on that order puts it back there in 2016.

Another point worth noting: For all the hype about Obama crushing Romney among Latinos three years ago, the man who pulled the biggest share of the Latino vote over the last 35 years was — ta da — the husband of next year’s likely Democratic nominee, who locked down 73 percent against Bob Dole in 1996. Despite losing the nomination in 2008, Hillary beat Obama — sometimes overwhelmingly — among Latino voters in most of the primary states with exit polls measuring that group. The Clintons are very formidable among Latinos. And there’s no strong evidence I know of indicating that Rubio would be similarly formidable, even relative to the rest of the GOP field. A poll taken two years ago showed him running only one point ahead of Romney’s dismal 2012 result with that group. A Latino Decisions poll conducted last month had his favorability at 31/29, a bit better than Jeb Bush’s (27/39) but worse than Chris Christie’s (38/12). You could argue that those numbers mean little right now since few Latino voters know much about Rubio; even Obama didn’t take off among black voters until months after he announced his candidacy, when it became increasingly plausible that he might win. The same could be true of Rubio — maybe he’ll soar among Latinos later this year, if/when he approaches the top of the polls. But as my pal Karl points out, Latinos aren’t as homogeneous a voting bloc historically as blacks are. And of course black voters weren’t being asked to support a candidate in Obama who differed from them ideologically the way Rubio differs from the majority of Latino voters. That’s not disastrous — Rubio would be very happy to lose 55/45 to Hillary among this group since it’d almost certainly mean he’d win the election overall — but this idea of him as the Latino Obama in 2016 has lots of problems.

The best hope I can give you here is that RCP elections guru Sean Trende thinks the bar for the GOP nominee among Latinos is a bit lower than Ayres does.

If white turnout is up and the GOP can do as well with Latinos as it did in the 2014 midterms — no easy feat given that presidential election years tend to bring out more Democrats — then yeah, victory is within reach. And if Rubio can show that he has some singularly good chance among GOP contenders to improve on Romney’s take of Latinos, rest assured that the establishment will drop their golden boy Jeb and rush to embrace him instead. Strong pre-primary polling with Latino voters is by far his best chance of a game-changing development that’ll win over the donor class. Whit Ayres is hard at work on it as we speak, no doubt.

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David Strom 8:41 PM on January 30, 2023