Mitt Romney will have many opportunities over the next three months to demonstrate to voters that they should choose him over Barack Obama: his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, the three presidential debates, major policy addresses, and more. But it may be that nothing will speak louder than his selection of a running mate.
Voters seem to care. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 74 percent of registered voters said the selection of a running mate will matter—48 percent saying it matters “somewhat” and 26 percent saying it matters “a lot.” In a close election, as this one seems likely to be, Romney’s pick could help determine the outcome.
It’s not the first time we’ve said it, but it could well be the last: Go bold, Mitt! Pick Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s intellectual leader, the man who’s laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda and gotten his colleagues in Congress to sign on to it. Or pick Marco Rubio, the GOP’s most gifted young politician, the man who embodies what is best about the Tea Party and a vision of a broad-based Republican governing majority of the future. Barack Obama was right about this (if only this): Modern democratic politics is about hope and change. Ryan and Rubio, more than anyone else, embody Republican hopes and conservative change.
But let’s descend from the Olympian heights of national aspiration to the bloody crossroads of practical politics. Here too the case for Rubio or Ryan is compelling.
On April 15, Romney attended a private fundraiser in the backyard of a large home in Palm Beach, Florida. His remarks, not intended for public consumption, were nonetheless overheard by reporters traveling with him. And they were blunt. “We have to get Hispanics to vote for our party,” he said. Romney pointed to polls showing him trailing badly among Hispanic voters and said that if those numbers don’t change, “it spells doom for us.”
Those numbers haven’t changed. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released in late July shows Obama with a 67-23 percent advantage over Romney among Hispanics. Last week, a Latino Decisions poll had Obama leading Romney 63-27 percent among Hispanics in five swing states with significant Hispanic populations—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia.
That’s worrisome. But the core of the problem is Florida—a must-win state for Romney. According to Latino Decisions, Romney trails Obama among Latino Floridians 53-37. (Even more, among voters who say they’re “certain” to vote for their candidate, Obama leads 49-29.) This kind of margin might well doom Romney.
In 2010, by contrast, Marco Rubio won 55 percent of Florida Hispanics. Rick Scott, who was probably helped by having Rubio running with him, won 50 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters in his successful bid to become governor. Even in 2008, while losing Florida 51-48, John McCain won 42 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry among Hispanics in Florida by 56-44 percent. (Those numbers were no doubt inflated because Bush’s brother Jeb was the popular governor at the time.)
The bottom line: Mitt Romney almost certainly will not win Florida if he wins just 37 percent of the Hispanic vote there. And Mitt Romney almost certainly will not be president if he doesn’t win Florida.
What to do? The Latino Decisions poll offers one possible answer: Pick Marco Rubio as your running mate. Some 31 percent of Florida Hispanics say they are more likely to vote for Romney if Rubio is on the ticket (47 percent say it would make no difference, and just 17 percent say it would make them less likely).
Rubio’s appeal goes well beyond Hispanics and well beyond Florida, of course. At a recent appearance in Nevada on behalf of Romney, Rubio drew nearly 1,000 voters to his former elementary school, with lines out the door. His autobiography, An American Son, spent several weeks near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. A recent survey of Illinois delegates to the Republican convention found that nearly half of them want Romney to pick Rubio.
The two main arguments against Rubio—he’s too inexperienced and he hasn’t been adequately vetted—strike us as weak. It’s true that Rubio has spent less than two years in the Senate. But he’s hardly green. Rubio served in the Florida House of Representatives for eight years, the final two as speaker. In his short time in the U.S. Senate, he has distinguished himself as a hard worker and a serious foreign policy thinker. He has participated in dozens of intelligence briefings—more than Barack Obama before he was nominated.