Some commentators have expressed surprise upon learning about the very conservative voting record of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address last week.But how does Senator Rubio hold up among the other notables in the Senate? Believe it or not, Rubio sits between Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, with five major GOP standouts more conservative than himself.
Since winning his Senate seat, Mr. Rubio has generally sided with other Republicans as part of a party that has steadily grown more conservative over the last three decades. (Mr. Rubio’s recent support for immigration reform is more of an exception than his usual rule of sticking to the party line.)
Being reliably conservative, however, is hardly a liability for someone who might hope to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Indeed, one reason to watch Mr. Rubio carefully is that, among the candidates who will be deemed reliably conservative by Republican voters and insiders, he may stand the best chance of maintaining a reasonably good image with general election voters.
...in 1980 the average Republican member of Congress had a score of 30, the average Republican in the most recent Congress had a score of 48, very close to Mr. Rubio’s. Thus, my contention that Mr. Rubio is a good representative of the Republican Party as it stands today.But the most important thing about Rubio's chances is his popularity.
This is a potentially advantageous position for a Republican competing in the presidential primaries. In both parties, nominees have usually come from the center of their parties, rather than from the moderate or the “extreme” wings. There are exceptions: Mr. Reagan, although he would fit right into the Republican Party today, was much more conservative than most of his contemporaries in 1980. But in general, Mr. Rubio is pretty close to the sweet spot of where a presidential nominee might want to be.
There are some viable candidates to Mr. Rubio’s right. The 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Representative Paul D. Ryan, rates a score of 55, slightly more conservative than Mr. Rubio. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, rates a 57.
Silver thinks that this likeability and Hispanic background are crucial.
Mr. Rubio's most persuasive pitch to GOP insiders may be that he is more popular than other, ideologically similar candidates. Some of those candiidates, like Mr. Ryan, can probably offer a richer intellectual defense of conservatism, or can claim to have been better vetted. Several others, like Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, have more executive experience. Mr. Rubio’s relatively favorable public image represents his comparative advantage. (There are also the facts that Mr. Rubio is Hispanic and is from Florida, but these advantages boil down to electability as well: the possibility that he might help Republicans make gains with Latinos, and that he could give them a lift in an especially important swing state.)And I think that an article by Silver this early in the game is a dog whistle to those salivating foaming at the mouth far-left sites like Media Matters and TalkProgress and dozens of other mindlessly mentally-disturbed commissars to burrow into everything Rubio and elevate anything like Marco's 'Watergate' into a tempest in a teacup.
What makes matters tricky for Mr. Rubio is that, at the same time he is hoping to persuade Republican party insiders that he deserves their support, he will also need to maintain a reasonably good image with the broader electorate lest his electability argument be undermined. This may lead to some strange positions, such as when Mr. Rubio recently critiqued President Obama’s immigration proposal despite its many similarities to his own.
When the wider electorate learns that Mr. Rubio’s positions are in fact hard to differentiate from those of other conservative Republicans, will his favorability ratings turn mediocre, as Mr. Ryan’s now are?
This is not meant as a rhetorical question. One measure of political talent, and something that characterized both Mr. Reagan and Mr. Obama, is the ability to sell ideas to voters across a wide range of the political spectrum. Perhaps Mr. Rubio will prove to be such a talent. Otherwise, if Mr. Rubio holds a fairly ordinary (and conservative) set of Republican positions, his popularity ratings may wind up being ordinary as well.