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Senator Rubio’s Support among Latino Sub-Groups

- May 1, 2012

As a recent Time magazine cover and a host of other articles remind us, Hispanics/Latinos are a sizable voting block in several states that will be fiercely contested come November, including Arizona, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.  What’s more, shifts among this group were a critical factor in President Obama’s 2008 victory.  As Governor Romney considers would-be running mates, his campaign is likely to ask whether certain choices would increase GOP support among Latinos.  Certainly, commentators such as George Will, Jamelle Bouie, and Harry Enten are already doing exactly that.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, is one prominent name in such conversations.  Here, one interesting question is about the extent to which Latinos in contested western states—many of whom are of Mexican descent–would be more inclined to support a ticket with a Vice Presidential nominee of Cuban descent.  Is the shared pan-ethnic identity likely to be influential?

For some relevant background, we might consider data from the Latino National Survey, which was conducted by political scientists Luis Fraga, John Garcia, Rodney Hero, Michael Jones-Correa, Valerie Martinez-Ebers, and Gary Segura in 2005 and 2006.  Among its many questions, respondents were asked which term best describes them, and they were able to choose between “Hispanic/Latino,” their family’s country of origin, and “American.”  37.0% of the survey’s 2,881 citizens of Mexican heritage chose the pan-ethnic “Hispanic” or “Latino,” while 27.5% opted for the national-origin group “Mexican.”  Another 28.3% chose “American,” with the remainder declining to answer or volunteering “none of the above.”  So there is significant identification with the pan-ethnic identity–and also with Mexico.

Is that pan-ethnic identity likely to influence voting?  For those seeking an in-depth answer, be sure to see Matt Barreto’s new book, Ethnic Cues: The Role of Shared Ethnicity in Latino Political Participation.  (I hope to post on that book soon, when I’ve had a copy for more than a few hours.)  For our purposes here, one preliminary way to address that question is by examining vote shifts between Florida’s 2008 Presidential election and its 2010 Senate election.  Exit poll data indicate that Obama won Florida Latinos 57%-42%, and that Rubio won the same group 55%-45% (where we group Latinos who voted for Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek alongside those who voted for independent candidate Charlie Christ).  This is a marked shift given that overall GOP support remained quite similar across the two elections, in large part due to 2010’s unusual three-way race.  Still, as Scott Clement over at Behind the Numbers points out, Rubio did far better among Americans of Cuban descent than among other Latino groups.  And from the Latino National Survey, we know that roughly 34% of Florida’s Latino citizens report being of Cuban descent, with 28% reporting Puerto Rican descent and another 8% indicating Mexican descent.

We turn, then, to precinct-level election data released as part of a broader project by Stephen Ansolabehere and Jonathan Rodden.  Specifically, we can observe each precinct’s shift in GOP support from 2008 to 2010, and compare that with guesses about its Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican populations estimated from the most proximate Census tract in 2010.  This analysis has the usual concerns about ecological inference—we don’t know who within each precinct is voting for Rubio—and we also need to keep in mind that the Census measures ancestry for residents, not for citizens.  So the results need to be taken with more than the usual a grain of salt: it is quite plausible that groups other than those measured here are actually driving the changes.  Still, this approach gives us a sense of the extent to which Marco Rubio out-performed John McCain in different precincts across a highly diverse state.

The Figure above summarizes the relationships, and includes coefficients from linear models predicting the change in vote share with the tract-level percentage of residents from each national origin group.  Shifts toward the GOP were pronounced in precincts near concentrations of residents of Cuban descent, as the left panel indicates.  Intriguingly, they were even more pronounced in precincts near concentrations of residents of Puerto Rican descent–check out the upward-sloping pattern in the middle panel.  But such shifts were also essentially unrelated to local Mexican-descended populations, as the right-most panel indicates.  From the precinct-level returns alone, our best guess is that Marco Rubio’s appeal in 2010 was different depending on the Latino sub-group in question.  Notice, too, which groups appear to be influenced: Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens from birth, and Cubans, whose eligibility for political asylum might lead them to approach the contemporary immigration debate from a different angle.  Certainly, that’s a possibility to examine with individual-level data.