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Hispanic Vote Won’t Come Easy for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz

Image: Marco Rubio

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio smiles as he arrives before announcing he is running for the Republican nomination, at a rally at the Freedom Tower, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) Alan Diaz / AP

With Marco Rubio’s announcement, Republicans now have two major Hispanic candidates in the 2016 presidential seeking the presidency – the first-term Florida senator and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. For a party that has struggled with Hispanic voters – President Barack Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote in 2012 – that’s welcome news.

Mr. Rubio’s Hispanic background in particular could pay dividends for him. The son of immigrants, he speaks fluent Spanish and was part of the bipartisan “gang of eight senators” that worked for comprehensive immigration reform, though a reluctant part of it.

Sen. Rubio: 2016 Campaign About America's Future 0:56

But before anyone gets too far down the road of discussing the GOP’s 2016 Hispanic face, keep this in mind: “Hispanics” are a very big and complicated group and both Rubio and Cruz are from one small segment of it, Cuban-Americans.

Of all the segments that make up the population we call Hispanics, Cuban-Americans are, in many ways, a group apart. As a whole they are wealthier, better educated and more Republican than other Hispanics.

About 33 percent of Cuban-Americans identify as Republicans, versus just 21 percent of Hispanics overall, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 17 percent of Cuban households have an income of $100,000 or more, compared to less than 12 percent for Hispanics overall, according to the U.S. Census. And about 27 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 15 percent for Hispanics overall, according to Census data.

The differences are even more pronounced on some of those measures when you look at Cuban-Americans compared to the biggest Hispanic group in the United States, Mexican-Americans.

Infogram: Hispanics are a complicated group.

And on top of those differences you can add one more. About half of Cuban-Americans, 46 percent, live in just one U.S county, Florida’s Miami-Dade. So the great growth of Hispanic populations around the United States does not really apply to them as a group.

These differences are not just a set of data points, they have real political significance. They suggest different needs and concerns among the groups. And taken together they show how Rubio and Cruz might find it somewhat difficult to find broad appeal among Hispanics.

The challenges and obstacles faced by a first-generation Mexican immigrant in Texas are very different than those faced by a third-generation Cuban immigrant near Miami.

And the immigrant experiences of Cubans, many of whom were welcomed as political refugees after Fidel Castro’s rise to power, are different those of Mexicans, who often cross the border for economic reasons. That can be a sore spot with other Hispanic groups.

In fact, Cuban immigrants in Florida have historically leaned Republican because Republican politicians have backed them and been strongly anti-communism and anti-Castro. (Although that Republican lean among Cubans is changing, according to Pew Research Center data).

Furthermore, from a sheer numbers perspective, the real growth in the Hispanic vote in recent decades has been among Mexican-Americans. In 1970 there were fewer than 1 million Mexican immigrants in the United States. Today there are roughly 12 million. And of the 15 million Hispanic households in the United States, about 9 million are occupied by people of Mexican origin.

In total, there are only about 2 million Cuban-Americans.

There is a long list of reasons why the Republican Party has had trouble with Hispanic voters in recent elections, particularly the GOP’s push in Congress against comprehensive immigration reform. Those issues likely run deeper than the backgrounds of any Republican candidate.

But beyond policy divides, “Hispanic” is a complicated identity in the United States. It’s about more than checking a box on a form, it’s about the different realities and experiences different Hispanic groups have. Cuban-Americans such as Rubio and Cruz come from different places than other Hispanics, on the globe and in American politics.