It's not only reform-minded Republicans who believe that there has been a misplaced emphasis on immigration as the only way to attract Hispanic voters. The centrist Democratic think tank Third Way issued a report in May titled "Americaña: Bipartisan Misinterpretation of 'Hispanic America,' " arguing the same point. "[Immigration] does not regularly rank high on the list of priorities within the community, and it certainly should not be seen as the single defining issue for Hispanic voters," the report reads. It cites a December 2013 Pew Research Center survey, where immigration ranked fifth as a top priority among Latinos, behind jobs, education, and health care.
"What a lot of Republicans misunderstand about the Hispanic community is, they assume they're the 47 percent. They assume they're poor people who are on government programs," said the report's author, Michelle Diggles. "The same type of ideas that you'd use to appeal other Americans, to white middle-class Americans, is also what Hispanic Americans want. We have to stop acting like they're a distinct group that doesn't share common American values."
That's one of the biggest differences between Rubio's outreach, which has been focused on middle-class Americans, and several of his prospective 2016 challengers, whose attempts at winning over minority voters have focused on poor Americans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled an antipoverty plan Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, in line with his high-profile outreach to struggling minority communities. Rand Paul has criticized overly punitive drug-sentencing guidelines and eliminating voting rights for felons in a bid to expand his appeal beyond libertarian-minded Republicans.
Former American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas said that many of the GOP's problems winning over Hispanic voters stem from problematic outreach as much as their policy positions. He argued the party needs to do a better job highlighting their Hispanic elected officials, given there are more Latino Republicans serving as governors and senators than Democrats. He praised the Republican Party committees' recent efforts in hiring more minority staffers, including Hispanic field organizers and Hispanic media specialists, while cautioning that more needed to be done on that front.
"A lot has to do with the nominee we select, the skill set they have addressing the Hispanic community, and the quality of the staff the nominee surrounds himself with," Cardenas said. "National candidates need to spend more time courting the Hispanic community as they travel across the country. We certainly need to improve the scheduling of significant spokesmen for the party."
Despite the high-profile efforts to broaden the GOP's coalition, few Republicans involved with minority outreach are optimistic about where the party stands. Attempts to push an antipoverty agenda has been adopted by several national Republican figures, but ignored by the party's congressional leadership and the conservative grassroots. Republican governors with successful records on education reform have been overshadowed lately by the grassroots backlash against Common Core standards. The newfound focus on border security has raised the risk that a Republican will make an insensitive comment that will draw attention and alienate Hispanics.
For every step forward, Republicans fret, it feels like the party is taking two steps backwards. Indeed, it may take a presidential nominee campaigning on an inclusive platform for the environment to change significantly.
"We've made baby steps, but we can't be proud of the baby steps we've done," said Burgos. "Because there are still leaps to do."