Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Can Rubio win the wacky races?

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I love American elections the way I used to love the cartoon series “Wacky Races.’’ Remember Dick Dastardly and his chuckling hound Muttley? Every week they would set off, hell-bent on beating the other drivers to the finishing line, and every week they would fail.

The primaries are a lot like the Wacky Races. If Donald Trump is the reincarnation of Dick Dastardly, then surely Bernie Sanders, with his Stone Age socialism, is one of the club-wielding Slag Brothers. Ted Cruz, with his vampirical pallor, belongs with Gruesome Twosome. And for the role of the batty Professor Pat Pending, I nominate Dr. Ben Carson.

And they’re off! But oh dear! Penelope Pitstop — Carly Fiorina — seems to have stalled. Hillary Clinton in the Arkansas Chuggabug has a flat tire. And poor old Private Meekly — Jeb Bush — is driving backwards! So who’s pulling ahead of Dastardly at this early stage of the race? Why, it’s Peter Perfect: Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

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This presidential race has been transformed by last week’s Iowa caucuses, not least by Rubio’s unexpectedly strong showing. True, Trump has a “yuge” lead in New Hampshire. But my money is on Rubio for the nomination.

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The fundamental flaw of Trump’s strategy has been its blatant, old-fashioned nativism. He has bashed Mexicans, Asians, and Muslims. It has played well with middle-aged white Americans without college degrees. The trouble is that, as a proportion of the total electorate, this group is in steep decline.

In 1960 more than 80 percent of the US population was white, non-Hispanic. Today that share is just above 60 percent. The median age of whites is 42; for Hispanics, it is just 28. By 2050, approaching a third of the US population will be ethnically Hispanic.

It is not wholly surprising, then, to find that two of the candidates for the presidency are of Hispanic origin. What is surprising is that they are both Republicans and that they are doing so well with non-Hispanic voters.

Marco Rubio is the son of Mario and Oriales (née Garcia) Rubio, Cubans who immigrated to the United States in 1956. He is married to Jeanette Dousdebes, the daughter of Colombian immigrants. Ted Cruz is the son of Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, a Cuban who left in 1957 to study at the University of Texas. The Texan Senator’s boyhood nickname was “Felito.”

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It is remarkable that Cruz won in Iowa, and that Rubio finished just one percentage point behind Trump. Moreover, the latest polls show Rubio surging in New Hampshire, up 7 points since Feb. 1. In the space of a week, Rubio’s chances of winning the Republican nomination have nearly doubled, according to the bookmaker Betfair. Rubio has also jumped into the lead in terms of endorsements from members of Congress.

The standard explanation for this success — that Rubio and Cruz have both betrayed their Hispanic heritage by adopting tough stances on immigration reform — simply does not suffice.

Rubio’s personal story is appealing not just to immigrant families, but to all families who admire or aspire to social mobility. In a country that worries about being polarized and divided, Rubio is also self-consciously a cultural crossover candidate. He and his family attend both a Catholic church and a Baptist one. His boast that he did well in Iowa despite the fact that “my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots were too high” was designed to make a virtue of his youth and inexperience, often (wrongly) cited as a weakness.

The counterargument against Rubio is that he is too socially conservative to win a presidential contest. But the evidence points the other way. According to the latest polls, he would not only beat Hillary Clinton by more than Ted Cruz would; he is also the sole Republican candidate who would beat Bernie Sanders, too.

There is, nevertheless, one other scenario that cannot yet be discounted. Polling last month by Frank Lutz indicated that up to 55 percent of voters would consider backing former Mayor Michael Bloomberg if he were a candidate for the presidency. In three-way races against Clinton and Rubio (or Cruz), Luntz puts Bloomberg at 28 percent — and that is before he has even decided to enter the fray.

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Fans of the “Wacky Races’’ will recall the large Prohibition-era automobile driven by the Anthill Mob. Diminutive, pugnacious, and every inch a New Yorker, their leader Clyde was always a more effective threat to Peter Perfect than Dick Dastardly. Sooner or later Marco Rubio is going to pull ahead of Donald Trump, not to mention the Arkansas Chuggabug. But he should keep a wary eye on the rearview mirror if Mr. Bloomberg enters this wackiest of political races.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford.