-- As he worked the rope line at a recent campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio suddenly recognized a familiar face.
“Great to see you again!” he told Claudia Steele, an immigrant from San Salvador who is now a U.S. citizen and a voter. The two had first met in July, at a campaign event in Urbandale, Iowa.
But Steele, who now volunteers for Rubio's campaign, had a pressing question for the candidate.
“Why aren’t we doing more Hispanic outreach?” Steele asked, in Spanish.
She was onto something. As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has yet to use one of his biggest assets -- the potential he has to win over Hispanics. It’s been estimated that Republicans must win over 40% of the Hispanic vote if they are to win the White House.
Rubio declared his candidacy in April, but since then has done very little Hispanic outreach -- not just in Iowa, but nationwide.
There was a campaign stop in Puerto Rico in September, which he conducted entirely in Spanish. There were a couple events in Las Vegas in October. One was at the LIBRE Initiative, a nonprofit Latino-outreach group funded by the Koch brothers; the other at a Cuban diner, where Rubio was greeted like a celebrity by the mostly Cuban crowd (at one point pausing his stump speech to accept a Cuban coffee).
But other than those three stops, Rubio hasn’t hosted other public events specifically geared towards Hispanics. Though he is fully bilingual, he very rarely speaks Spanish out on the stump.
The campaign declined to say whether it was doing any Hispanic outreach behind closed doors. It said it has “staffers who do outreach” but declined to confirm whether it has hired any staffers that are fully dedicated to the task. Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz all have.
In addition, the campaign has yet to run any Spanish-language ads. Again, Bush, Clinton and Cruz already have.
“I don’t see Rubio on Telemundo, on Univision,” Steele said.
On immigration, Rubio has slowly shifted to the right. He has distanced himself from his 2013 efforts to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. At the last Republican debate, he stayed silent when the topic came up.
Instead, Rubio makes the argument that the number one issue Hispanic voters care about is the economy. When he tells his personal story, he focuses on his parents’ economic struggles and their pursuit of the American dream.
“We have to make the connection with limited government and free enterprise,” he said, when asked in Las Vegas how he planned to reconcile Hispanics with conservatives, after the offensive comments some Republicans have made during this election cycle.
In 2012, Mitt Romney won 27% of the Hispanic vote. Barack Obama won over 70%.
"The first Latino that has a chance to become president? All bets are off," Lionel Sosa, Ronald Reagan’s Latino outreach director, recently told the New Yorker. "I would say that [Rubio] could easily capture 60-65 percent of the Latino vote."
But others -- including Steele -- disagree. They argue that to believe that is to underestimate the Hispanic community.
“It’s gonna take more than that,” said Joe Enriquez Henry, who oversees the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa’s efforts to turn out the Hispanic vote. “Especially when some in his party are spurting so much hate in their rhetoric. He’s gonna have to be meeting with people, especially here in Iowa."
Henry said LULAC has reached out to Rubio multiple times, but to no avail. But they have been working with the Bush and Clinton campaigns.
Speaking with reporters in Las Vegas, Rubio was asked how he planned to win over Hispanics who might be looking for a candidate with "more than a Spanish last name."
“I’ve never asked people to relate to me because of how I pronounce my last name. I ask them to relate to me because of my history, why I believe in the American dream, and my own personal experience with the American dream,” Rubio said.
“It’s the same message everywhere I go, and it appeals to all Americans," he added.
But according to a new Quinnipiac poll released today, almost twice as many Hispanics have an unfavorable view of Rubio, 22 percent vs. 42 percent. Meanwhile, at least six in ten Hispanics view both Clinton and Bernie Sanders favorably.
Rubio might have made the calculation that the Hispanic vote cannot help him win in the early primary states. In Iowa, for instance, Latinos make up less than 6% of the state population.
But according to LULAC, in 2014, there were 50,000 registered Latino voters in the state, with 20,000 who could have been registered.
That’s a total of 70,000 potential voters.
Only about 90,000 voters participate in the Iowa Republican caucuses.
In 2008, Obama won Iowa largely by turning out the youth vote and first-time caucus-goers.
Back in Des Moines, Rubio told Steele not to worry about his campaign’s Hispanic outreach efforts.
“We’re gonna change that. You’ll see,” Rubio told Steele.
He could very well mean it. On Saturday, Rubio will be back in West Miami for a fundraiser titled “Where It All Began.” Rubio kicked off his career as West Miami City Commissioner. The homecoming is meant to reunite Rubio with the Hispanic community there that has always had his back. Other names headlining the event include Sosa, de La Cruz, Perez and Garcia.