When it comes to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who announced his presidential campaign this week, over and over the press' to-go description is “charismatic.” That adjective has been making the rounds in the Financial Times, Vox, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. There's been heated agreement among reporters and pundits that Rubio is unquestionably magnetic and alluring.
For candidates, of course, “charismatic” represents a coveted label that elevates a politician above the ordinary. It signals that he or she is a bold communicator who can tap into voters' emotions; who can inspire and motivate in a way most mundane practitioners cannot.
There's certainly nothing wrong with dispensing compliments to politicians. But as the campaign season unfolds and media memes are formed around candidates (Al Gore never shook the press' "exaggerator" tag), it seems worth noting, as New York magazine highlighted, how the Beltway press years ago concluded that the much sought-after “charismatic” tag would be applied to Rubio, and it would be applied to him no matter what trajectory his career was on.
The “charismatic” term is clearly subjective and is used by journalists who seem to consider Rubio to be a transcendent speaker and politician. What's curious though, is that journalists often don't point to speeches or events in Rubio's past that confirm his “charismatic” status. Instead, the compliment has been doled out for years matter-of-factly. For instance, from the New York Times and Washington Post:
* “Marco Rubio, the charismatic senator-elect from Florida” (Nov. 26, 2010, New York Times]
* “Mr. Rubio, a charismatic Latino senator from a crucial swing state” (March 29, 2012. New York Times)
* "[A] charismatic young Republican senator from Miami, Marco Rubio" (March 22, 2015. New York Times)
* “Marco Rubio, the charismatic young Cuban American who has captured the hearts of conservatives around the country” (April 10, 2010. Washington Post)
* “The charismatic Cuban American lawmaker from Florida,” (Oct. 26, 2011. Washington Post)
* “The 43-year-old senator from Florida and charismatic son of immigrants” (April 6, 2015. Washington Post)
Note that there are no caveats. The Times and Post usually don't suggest that it's supporters who see Rubio as “charismatic.” And they don't use the adjective to describe a Rubio speech. Instead, for the Times and Post (and many, many other news outlets), Rubio's “charismatic” nature is simply presented as fact, like his age or hometown.
Where's the proof that Rubio's actually a “charismatic” figure? In truth, there seems to be some convincing evidence, such as the senator's failed effort to marshal through immigration reform legislation, that suggests Rubio's specifically not able to win over converts based on the sheer force of his will and speaking style.
From Mother Jones:
Latino voters largely support creating a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented residents in the United States, yet conservative GOP voters hate the idea. And Rubio has been caught between these two voting blocs. In the past two years, he first supported the comprehensive reform approach favored by Latinos that was embodied in a bipartisan bill approved by the US Senate, but then he distanced himself from the legislation and became a cheerleader for a secure-the-border-first strategy that appeals to the GOP base.
The Senate bill Rubio helped craft, and the one he publicly trumpeted, was sent to the House where Republicans refused not only to vote on it, but refused to even enter into traditional negotiations with the Senate to create a final bill. In the end, Rubio was forced to capitulate on his signature issue of immigration reform, having failed to move the Republican Party on the issue.
Similarly, if Rubio were truly a gifted communicator and motivator, wouldn't he be able to make headway with Hispanic voters, who remain a crucial missing piece to the GOP's demographic puzzle? To date, there's no indication the Florida senator has done that. “We find no evidence that Rubio's candidacy will draw significant Latino support for his candidacy or for his party more generally,” two pollsters concluded last week, according to the Washington Times.
And then there's Rubio's current standing within the Republican primary field. Breaking from the media's “charismatic” pack, Nate Cohn recently noted in the New York Times that Rubio “has been called the ”best communicator" in the Republican Party. Over and over and over again," yet he “has little to show for it.” He added, “Mr. Rubio has yet to prove himself an exceptional candidate.”
At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, where Rubio spoke, the senator received just 3.7 percent of the conference's straw poll vote. In other words, if Rubio's so “charismatic,” why do so few Republican voters currently support his presidential run?
But wait, wasn't Barack Obama often heralded by the media as “charismatic” eight years ago when he was a young, first-term senator launching a presidential push? Indeed, he was. But almost overnight, then-candidate Obama grabbed 25-30 percent of support among Democratic primary voters and catapulted himself to near the top of the campaign battle.
There's a chance that in coming months Rubio will finally connect with Republican voters nationwide and his “charisma” will pay dividends. But for now, there's little evidence of that.
Meanwhile, is it time for the press to pick a new favorite Rubio adjective?