Why Cruz, Rubio can't lock in Latino vote

When Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz first announced they were running for president, many political pundits and voters – including my conservative friends - predicted the two Cuban-Americans would bring more Hispanics into the GOP.

Some even compared Rubio to President Obama, saying Rubio would energize Hispanics just like Obama motivated the black vote in 2008.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz

But now that voters are taking a closer look at the candidates, it is becoming more likely that both Cruz and Rubio will lose the Latino vote in the general election.

While poll numbers focused solely on Hispanics are scarce, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from Dec. 14 shows Rubio getting 36 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to Hillary Clinton's 59 percent.

How is this possible when Rubio speaks Spanish and Cruz is the son of a Cuban-born preacher? Aren't these factors enough to bring Latinos into the conservative party?

Privately, I told friends back then that Cruz and Rubio wouldn't motivate Latinos, like another Hispanic presidential candidate did back in 2008.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who is Mexican-American, might have been a blip on the radar in the 2008 Democratic presidential race, but to Latinos, he represented a major milestone for their culture.

At his root, he is viewed as a Latino – and no Hispanic will dispute it. But ask any Hispanic if Rubio or Cruz is Latino, and you will hear different answers. Latinos will agree that Cruz and Rubio are Hispanic, but they will likely disagree on whether they are Latinos.

So what's the difference between Hispanics and Latinos?

Hispanics are united by Spanish; Latinos are united by culture. And that's where the political pundits misjudged the Hispanic voting block.

The Cuban and Mexican cultures (or for that matter any Latin-American country south of Mexico) are completely different. They face different plights and struggles, and different paths towards citizenship.

A Cuban immigrant who reaches the U.S. is not sent back to Cuba and can become a legal resident after a year – a preferential treatment that doesn't apply to other Latinos. It's another reason why Latinos not from Cuba want immigration reform. Making matters worse for Rubio, he hurt his standing with Latinos after he stopped supporting his own immigration-reform bill.

Here's another reason why Cruz and Rubio won't get the Latino vote.

Nearly two-thirds of all Hispanics in the U.S. are Mexican, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data, while Cubans make up 3 percent of the Hispanic vote. This also reinforces why Richardson polled significantly higher with Latinos in 2008 than both Cruz and Rubio are polling now.

So what can GOP leaders do if they want to bring more Latinos into the party?

They should look west towards New Mexico where a Republican governor, Susana Martinez, now leads the state that is rich in Latin culture. Martinez hasn't been vetted like Cruz or Rubio — and she doesn't have their national profile — but she does bring executive experience that both Cruz and Rubio lack. She is also the first Latina governor in the U.S. – and that's something no Hispanic or Latino voter will dispute, including this Mexican-American writer.

It couldn't hurt the GOP to give her a little more visibility.

Commentary by Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public-relations firm, that has run media and branding campaigns for politicians, tech start-ups, financial firms, nonprofits and companies. He's also author of the book, "Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing theMedia." Follow him on Twitter @markmacias.

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