Marco Obama? Not So Fast

In the wake of Marco Rubio’s presidential announcement, much punditry has likened him to another young senator with an exotic name and a thin resume: Barack Obama in 2008. But I think that the differences between the two men are as telling as the similarities. In addition, there are some shared qualities that may have helped Obama in his presidential run that will probably not do much for Rubio, especially in his quest for the Republican nomination.

The Similarities:

Age. Both men announced their candidacies when they were in their mid-forties, which is unusually young to seek the presidency. (The last serious Republican contender to run for the White House while in his forties was Steve Forbes in 1996, whose wealth allowed him to skip the usual steps in a political ascendancy). But Rubio is not the only Generation Xer to seek the Republican nomination: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker are all about the same age (cue the Alex P. Keaton jokes about kids growing up in the Reagan era). Being young won’t necessarily make Rubio stand out. (He does seem to be a particular darling of young conservative pundits, though). Obama performed quite well among young voters in Democratic primaries in 2008; so far, polls don’t show any similar pattern for Rubio.

Charisma. Both men are considered “charismatic,” and both can give a good speech. Obama’s first big moment in the spotlight was a success, while Rubio’s was widely mocked, but no one doubts their rhetorical abilities. How much does that matter? Probably not that much, but Rubio seems to have gotten good reviews for his personal appearances in early states.

The Differences

Demographics. As the first African-American seen as a realistic prospect for the White House, Barack Obama could benefit from the support of one of the Democratic Party’s largest and most loyal constituencies. Hispanics play no such role within the Republican Party (white evangelical Protestants are the most obvious GOP parallel to African-Americans). Hispanics vote heavily Democratic and participate in politics at a level far below that of the general population. They won’t be able to help Rubio in Republican primaries in the way that African-Americans could vault Obama to the top.

Rubio’s fellow Cuban-Americans are a conspicuous exception to the Democratic loyalties of Hispanics, but they are increasingly divided, both between the parties, and in their attitudes towards relations with Cuba. They may also be divided in the GOP race: Jeb Bush also has a claim on their loyalties. Nor they matter much outside Florida. Non-Cuban Hispanics are far more dispersed, but they don’t always see Cubans as their cultural brethren. So far, there’s little sign that Hispanics are rallying to Rubio, but there’s plenty of time for that to change. But that would be more likely to be a general-election asset.

Issues. Barack Obama’s “right from the start” opposition to the Iraq War was critical to his winning the Democratic nomination. No issue mattered more to George W. Bush-era Democratic activists; Hillary Rodham Clinton was conspicuously on the “wrong” side. Without support from anti-war liberals, Obama would not have swept the caucuses that gave him the nomination. There isn’t anything comparable to distinguish Rubio. He has a very conservative record in politics, but so do most of his rivals. Like Jeb Bush, he has a history of backing immigration reform, although he doesn’t seem to suffer as much for it among conservative activists.

Rubio wants to make foreign policy the distinguishing feature of his candidacy, but I wonder if voters will see a fortysomething one-term senator as a strategic sage. In addition, he holds the same views as every other Republican candidate except Rand Paul. (Obama could neutralize charges of inexperience by pointing out that he got the Iraq War “right.” Once again, there’s no comparable point that Rubio could make).

Polls. It’s early, but it’s not that early. As Nate Cohn points out, by this point in the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama was already performing well in polls of Democrats. Marco Rubio remains stuck in single digits. Fortunately for him, no Republican is yet running away with the nomination. But so far there’s little sign that voters are especially interested in Rubio. Maybe his announcement will create a wave of good press that will boost his standing. At some point, he’ll need to go from being “everyone’s second choice” to being somebody’s first.

Good for Barack, maybe not so good for Marco

“History.” Not only did Obama benefit from the fervent support of his fellow African-Americans, but the sense of making “history” also appealed to many white liberals and young people. There’s no comparable historical resonance to electing the first Hispanic. Nor do I think it’s likely to do much to excite Republican primary voters. Iowa caucus-goers probably would find Rubio’s life story inspiring, but Scott Walker’s background as a Midwestern preacher’s kid might resonate more with them.

Popular Culture. Much as Bill Clinton did in 1992, Barack Obama was able to use his facility with popular culture to make him look “hip” and exciting. Marco Rubio’s equivalent is his knowledge of hip-hop. But hip-hop’s demographics are really bad for a Republican candidate. According to a 2009 Pew study, it has almost no fans among those over 50. It’s much more popular among blacks and Hispanics than among whites. One of the top Republican contenders felt comfortable denouncing Jay-Z as “a pimp.” Mike Huckabee probably didn’t lose many fans over this contretemps – a 2012 survey found Jay-Z to be the performer with the second-most Democratic audience. Nor is hip-hop particularly strong in Iowa. The Des Moines radio market has five country stations and seven religious stations, but no hip-hop stations. This is another factor that I’m inclined to discount, but a Republican candidate would benefit far more from a knowledge of CCM and college football than from a love for hip-hop.

Does this mean that I think Marco Rubio has no shot at the nomination? No! The Republican field is still pretty fluid, without a dominant frontrunner (Jeb Bush is at best “first among equals.”) Rubio remains widely acceptable among Republicans, although I wonder how well most voters know him. Unlike Rand Paul or Ben Carson, his views and background are entirely mainstream within the party. Unlike Ted Cruz, he doesn’t have a reputation as an extremist. Unlike Mike Huckabee, he doesn’t seem to be the captive of a particular party faction. (If anything, Rubio suffers from the lack of an obvious base). He’ll probably raise enough money, though nothing like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. He’ll hire a professional staff. I’m sure some Republican officeholders will endorse him.

Like a lot of folks, I feel comfortable ranking Rubio third, behind Bush and Walker, in terms of his chances of winning the GOP nomination. (For a glass-half-full assessment, see Harry Enten; for a glass-empty assessment, see Nate Cohn again). But I think comparisons to Barack Obama, beyond the most obvious points, are inappropriate.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.