Latino analysts dubious of Rubio’s potential benefit for Romney

Handsome, youthful, Cuban American and Republican, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been mentioned repeatedly as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney — in part because of hopes that the presence of the first Latino on a major national ticket would draw that key voting group Romney’s way.

But outside of his enormously important home state, the prospect for that sort of boost seems less than likely.

Some voters would probably be attracted by the idea of a Latino, any Latino, being that close to the White House. (Others, particularly Democrats and left-leaning independents, might never consider a vote for the GOP ticket.)

One complication is internal rivalries amid the diverse group of 22 million potential voters that, for demographic purposes, is treated as one unified electoral bloc.

“Mexicans and Central Americans historically have a reason for being Democrats, and Cubans have good reasons for being Republicans,” said Jesus Hernandez Cuellar, a Cuban American editor of an online magazine. “I don’t think the great electoral mass, the Mexican Americans, will change their point of view on the election just because of Marco Rubio.”

Rubio and Romney are scheduled to speak Wednesday at a meeting in Washington of the Latino Coalition, a nonprofit small-business organization. The Florida senator has said in the past that he would decline being the vice presidential nominee if the position were offered. That hasn’t stopped speculation about him, or to a lesser extent, another Latino politician being Romney’s running mate.

But experts and several polls have suggested a Latino on the Republican ticket would yield a limited payoff with the broader Latino community.

Despite sharing a language, and often having similar stories of how they or their forebears arrived on American shores, the Latino population is far from monolithic, and subject to the same jealousies, rivalries and prejudices as other groups.

Cuban Americans face resentment from some other Latinos because of the perception that America has given immigrants from the Communist island nation a leg up, Cuellar said.

“There’s some resentment, and it’s not just because of the embargo [on Cuba] or political votes,” he said. “Cubans who come to the United States can almost immediately, one year and a day, apply for legal residency. That’s created some divisions.”

But the divisions don’t stop with the Cubans. Jokes and stereotypes fly freely among many Latino subgroups, sometimes masking more barbed feelings over things like relative skin color and perceptions of social class, or the way different Latinos talk.

Karen Anzoategui, an Argentine American actress and performance artist in Los Angeles, has heard them all. How do Argentines commit suicide? They climb to the top of their ego and jump. Mostly she laughs along, but things can get a little heavier whenever she puts on the jersey of her beloved Argentina for a big soccer match against Mexico.

“I grew up with Mexicans surrounding me, but there’s a lot of tension when I wear that jersey. Neighbors stare at me,” said Anzoategui, who grew up in the Los Angeles County city of Huntington Park. “But I feel like Guatemalans and Salvadorans like Argentina because the Mexicans think they’re better than them, and when we play Mexico, we always beat them.”

Raul Claros, an L.A. community activist of Salvadoran and Costa Rican descent, said he’d had more than one debate with Mexicans over the relative merits of each group’s colorful catalog of profanities.

“If you get a group of Salvadorans together, a lot of times they’ll use words that sound belligerent amongst themselves, but they’ll offend no one,” he said with a laugh. “But you bring in one non-Salvadoran, and they have to exit the room.”

Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington, said there is more that unifies Latinos than divides them.

There are interesting differences between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, Barreto said, “but politically, when it comes to the general election, they vote together nine times out of 10.”

In a tight presidential race, Latinos could play a significant role because of their growing population in a number of competitive states.

“The states which are competitive are changing: the Mountain West, the Southwest and the South, for example,” Barreto said. “These track with demographic changes where the Latino vote is growing.”

In 2004, more than 40% of Latinos voted for President George W. Bush, a very high percentage for a Republican presidential candidate. Significantly though, Bush was seen as relatively liberal on illegal immigration and friendly toward Latinos, particularly those of Mexican descent, compared with many Republican leaders, including Romney. Bush also has a sister-in-law of Mexican descent.

Romney has been polling at more than 25% among Latinos, said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Polling by Latino Decisions, an opinion research group Barreto co-founded, shows that a similar proportion of Latino voters view the GOP as hostile. And he said polls on Rubio showed no major support among Latinos outside of Florida.

Claros, the Salvadoran-Costa Rican, said many Central Americans feel overlooked in places where people of Mexican descent dominate. But despite rivalries and occasional resentments, he said he feels more of a kinship with Mexican Americans than he would with Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans or other groups.

“They’re East Coast Latinos. We’re West Coast Latinos,” Claros said. “If you’re Central American, there’s a disconnect with Cubans because you’re not exposed to a lot of Cuban families or Cuban culture.”

Rafael Fantauzzi, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition in Washington, said he recalled when President Clinton considered nominating a Puerto Rican to the Supreme Court. Some Mexican Americans opposed it, thinking the nominee should be from the largest Latino group, he said.

No Latino was nominated that time. But when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the high court three years ago, Fantauzzi said, Mexican American groups strongly supported her.

“The first Latino on the bench is a Puerto Rican from New York, and it never would have happened without our Mexican American brothers and sisters pushing the White House for that,” said Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president and a former New York state legislator.

Fantauzzi said some Latinos think Puerto Ricans don’t care about issues like illegal immigration, being citizens by birth. That’s not really true, he said, though for many Latinos, including Mexican Americans, the live-wire issue of illegal immigration isn’t the top priority this election.

Still, Fantauzzi said choosing someone on a presidential ticket with a Spanish surname isn’t necessarily a winning formula to get the Latino vote, he said.

“The idea that Marco Rubio would galvanize a large segment of the Hispanic vote purely because he’s Hispanic is a fallacy,” Fantauzzi said. “It’s an insult to our intelligence that we would not really look at the value of a candidate and just look at his culture.”