Voters who say they would be drawn to Rubio through culture insist it would take more than that to actually pull the lever. They consistently describe the GOP as out of touch, the party for the rich — qualities reinforced by the stiff, multimillionaire Romney.
“We identify with Democrats because they are empathetic to our needs. With the budget, the first thing Republicans try to cut are the social programs,” said Corona, 20, the El Paso college student, praising what Head Start did for her as a child. She said her peers disagree with Republicans on a range of social issues, including gay marriage.
Rubio’s opposition to Obamacare is at odds with strong support among Hispanics. While he rails against big government, surveys show Hispanics overwhelmingly like government services.
“How’s he going to help me just because he’s Latino?” asked David Martinez Jr., 37 of La Mesa, N.M., whose family operates a Mexican restaurant amid the expansive pecan farms of the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s just hard to believe Republicans. They don’t have a track record of helping minorities or the middle class.
“It’s his beliefs and policies that are going to make the difference. Does Rubio have the same mentality as Romney with that ’47 percent’ stuff?”
Since the election, Rubio has overtly distanced himself from Romney. He has been talking a lot about the middle class and stressing his non-Romney upbringing, commiserating over student loans and calling for more vocational education and school choice.
The American Dream story about his parents, a hotel bartender and Kmart clerk, took a credibility hit when it was revealed they arrived in the United States before Fidel Castro took over. Rubio has dropped the reference to “exiles” but the story continues to move audiences.
“There are millions of Mario Rubios all across America today,” Rubio said of his father in a speech in Washington a month after the election. “They aren’t looking for a handout. ... All they want is a chance to earn a better life for themselves and a better future for their children.”
Democrats point out that Cubans, whose special immigration status is a point of contention for other immigrants, are but a tiny slice of the Hispanic population and question Rubio’s appeal to a broader community, let alone his hold on younger Cubans, who drifted away from the GOP.
A Quinnipiac poll last week added fuel. A hypothetical 2016 matchup between Rubio and Hillary Clinton showed her winning handily in Florida and capturing 57 percent of the Hispanic vote to Rubio’s 35 percent.
“If Rubio runs against Mrs. Clinton, he doesn’t stand a chance,” said David Martinez Sr., father of the man in the New Mexico restaurant. “But we’ll look at him. We’ll look at him real heavily.”
New Mexico and Texas underscore the GOP’s challenges. Obama won New Mexico for the second time in 2012 and left it looking less like the tossup of past elections, including 2004 when George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Republicans will be playing catch-up there in 2016.
In Texas, the GOP will be trying not to lose more ground. The classic Republican “red” state is slowly turning into a battleground, though Hispanic participation in elections still lags. By the 2016 election there will be about 905,000 new Hispanic voters versus fewer than 200,000 new white voters, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.