Marco Rubio began his 2016 presidential campaign by touting his work on immigration reform and the bill he helped push through the Senate in 2013, after spending the last several months backing away from the bill amid fierce conservative opposition.
In an interview with NPR, Rubio offered a favorable comparison of himself to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton on the issue of immigration reform.
“I’ve done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did,” Rubio said in the interview. “I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that’s more than she’s ever done. She’s given speeches on it, but she’s never done anything on it. So I have a record of trying to do something on it.”
The comments are an indication of how he’ll approach the issue in 2016, as he tries to balance the opposition of conservatives in the GOP primary to his bill with a need to appeal to broader constituencies in a possible general-election matchup.
But they also open him up to charges of flip-flopping on the issue. Protesters outside of his announcement speech Monday night at Miami’s historic Freedom Tower latched on to that theme.
Here’s brief history of Rubio’s shifts on immigration before Monday’s presidential launch:
- In early 2013, he was a member of the bipartisan Senate “gang of eight” which unveiled a comprehensive bill to reform the nation’s immigration laws. The bill included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which prompted a significant pushback from conservatives. Rubio voted for the bill in the Senate, where it passed, but it was never taken up in the House of Representatives.
- In October 2013, he completely backed away from his own bill, saying he believed a “piecemeal” approach would be more practical. It came after his poll numbers plunged among Republican voters.
- Earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, he stressed a border-security-first approach to immigration. “What I’ve learned is you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know—not just believe, but it’s proven to them—that future illegal immigration will be controlled,” he said. “That is the single biggest lesson of the last two years.”
The polling firm Latino Decisions has measured Latinos’ sentiment toward Rubio over the past two-plus years, and has found that his backtrack on immigration has hurt his standing with those voters.
One example: When Rubio took a “leadership role” on immigration — as he did with the Senate “gang of eight” bill — 54 percent of Latinos surveyed said they would be likely to vote for him. After he stepped back from his own bill and said the focus should be placed more on border security, just 29 percent of Latinos said they’d be likely to vote for him. The amount who said it’d be “very unlikely” they would vote for him in the next election doubled, from 25 percent to 51 percent.
“We find no evidence that Rubio’s candidacy will draw significant Latino support for his candidacy or for his party more generally,” said Matt Barreto, the co-founder of Latino Decisions.
His shifts on immigration have contributed to an overall negative impression of him in crucial swing states, according to Latino Decisions. His favorability ratings are underwater in Nevada, North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, and even his home state of Florida.