American political conventions are now principally talent shows. In distributing the coveted prime-time speaking slots, the parties showcase their future stars and give a chosen few their first taste of national celebrity. A boffo performance can make a career, as Barack Obama’s stunning 2004 keynote did. A lousy one can do just the opposite, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s hot-headed and self-regarding speech seems to have done last week in Tampa.
This year, both parties sent a strong message with their selection of up-and-comers: two bright, young Latinos. On the final night of the Republican Convention, the young and charismatic Florida Sen. Marco Rubio got the honor of introducing Mitt Romney. On the first night of the Democrats, the even younger and more charismatic San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro opened the final hour. The Rubio-Castro matchup frames a crucial competition: the battle for an electoral segment that could determine the outcome in 2012, and will become only more important thereafter.
Latinos are nearly 17 percent of the U.S. population, and are voting in higher proportion year by year. In the early 1990s, only 2 percent of the electorate was Latino. In 2008 it was 9 percent. Because the U.S. Latino population is growing so fast—43 percent over the past two decades, according to the 2010 census—this share can be expected to rise in every future election. It is largely because of the Latino vote that the Southwestern states of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico are trending Democratic. It is hard for Republicans to put 270 electoral votes together without the Southwest. Without Florida (23 percent Hispanic), it’s nearly impossible.
For many viewers, Rubio and Castro seemed to be telling versions of the same immigrant success story. The 41-year-old Rubio talked about his Cuban grandfather, a childhood polio victim, who sat on the porch smoking cigars and taught his grandson that he could achieve anything in America. Rubio praised his father, a banquet bartender, who “stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years so that one day I could stand behind a podium, in the front of a room.” Castro spoke about his Mexican grandmother, who came to Texas as an orphan to live with relatives and worked as a maid, and his mother, who went to college and became a political activist. “My mother fought for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone,” Castro said, bringing the house down in Charlotte.
Where Rubio and Castro diverge is in the lesson they draw from that immigrant experience. To Rubio, Hispanics are refugees from foreign oppression, who want government to let them alone. He began by decrying the lack of liberty in Cuba, and then depicted the growth of American government as steps in an oppressive direction. President Obama’s stimulus spending and national health care bill, Rubio said, were the kind of “ideas that people come to America to get away from.” In this vision of the Latino virtue, government needs to get out of the way, because “We should be free to go as far as our talents and our work can take us.”
The 37-year-old Castro, whose identical twin brother is the favorite to win a Congressional seat this fall, sees government by contrast, as an essential enabler of ethnic assimilation and success. With a beaming smile, he mocked Romney for advising college students to start their first business by borrowing money from their parents. “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?” Without public investment in education, health care, job training, and transportation, Castro argued, struggling Americans will never have the opportunity to succeed.
For the time being, Democrats continue to hold the edge in this competition, largely because of the big issue neither really discussed: immigration. In 2008, Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote. This year he could do even better because his executive order to stop deportations of children and college students. Republicans, by contrast, have defined themselves by their angry opposition to any form of amnesty for undocumented residents, and support for Arizona’s stop-and-check-for-ID law aimed at deporting more illegal immigrants.
This is the one area where former President George W. Bush had it right. Even after failing to bring his party around to immigration reform, Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. His brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has been making the case that the party’s harsh views pointlessly alienate Hispanics. Every election, it becomes harder for Republicans to win without them.
A version of this piece appears in the Financial Times.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.