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In the immediate aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat, Marco Rubio was the most popular choice for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Rubio has since fallen behind Chris Christie and Rand Paul and, in some polls, has also fallen behind Ted Cruz. The lesson of the 2012 Republican nomination race is that early polls are volatile, but the rise and fall of the freshman Republican Senator from Florida is more than a story of Rubio’s foibles and tactical mistakes. It is also a story of how conservative Republicans have projected their hopes on him, and how those hopes were not merely dashed, but unrealistic in the first place.

Pete Spiliakos Rubio has gone from being hailed as a Hispanic Ronald Reagan, to getting caught misleading conservatives about and triangulating against his own immigration plan. A Rubio aide was caught saying that low-skill American workers can’t cut it in the job market, and Rubio’s latest high-profile foreign policy speech has been panned for its vacuousness. If this keeps going, conservatives aren’t going to remember what they ever saw in Rubio.

That would be too bad because Rubio had his moments. Rubio took on the purely opportunistic Charlie Crist for the 2010 Republican senatorial nomination when the Republican establishment overwhelmingly backed Crist. When the BP oil spill was at its worst and Crist was (opportunistically as ever) backing restrictions on offshore drilling, Rubio hung tough. Rubio consistently stuck by his commitments to raise the retirement age and skillfully parried attempts by Crist to demagogue entitlement reform.

The enthusiasm for Rubio should also be put in perspective. Rubio’s youth was an appealing contrast to the 2008 crop of Republican presidential candidates. Rubio was a full spectrum conservative. He was pro-life, pro-surge, and (however vaguely) pro-free market politics. He was also better at articulating those beliefs than most Republican candidates, and he won his Senate seat in the key swing state of Florida. But that wasn’t the whole of his appeal. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania were conservative Republicans who won 2010 Senate seats in even more Democratic-leaning states and hardly anyone mentioned them as viable 2016 presidential candidates. One suspects that some conservatives supported Rubio not only because they thought they agreed with him on the issues, but also in the hopes that nominating Rubio would lead to Republican gains among Hispanic and young voters.

Conservatives should count it as a blessing that Rubio has turned out to be a disappointment so early in the 2016 presidential election cycle. Rubio never over-performed among Hispanic voters in national opinion polls. Nonwhite voters were always going to be a harder get than nominating a Hispanic presidential candidate (or nominating a Hispanic presidential candidate and supporting amnesty and vastly expanded immigration).

Conservatives who hoped that nominating Rubio would help them with nonwhite voters were starting at the wrong end. Many Hispanics (and African Americans, and Asian Americans, and whites under thirty) have never heard a conservative message that was relevant to their lives. This problem has several components. The issue agenda component is that the Republican strategy of across-the-board cuts on marginal tax rates (to pick one example) has limited appeal. The media-strategy component is that many nonwhite and younger voters, based on their media consumption patterns, never even hear about when they do agree with conservatives.

A larger fraction of African-American and Hispanic voters favored restricting late-term abortion than voted for Mitt Romney. How many of those pro-Obama opponents of late-term abortion heard about President Obama’s appalling vote to oppose extending legal protections to infants who survived attempted abortions? It won’t be enough to add a Hispanic last name and an immigrant story to the same clichés about free market uplift and peace through strength (no matter how well delivered) using the same media channels to talk to the same people. The Rubio temptation was that conservatives would not have to change very much to return to political power.

It won’t be that easy. A better place to start would be with Utah Senator Mike Lee. Lee is not a prospective 2016 presidential candidate and he isn’t nearly as charismatic as Rubio. What Lee does have is a tax plan that would increase the take-home pay of working parents who are at (or just under) the median income and education reforms that would make it easier for workers to get the skills and credentials they need to get higher paying jobs. Lee’s plans are not silver bullets, but they can be part of an economic agenda that can appeal to persuadable Hispanics and African Americans (who—due to residency patterns—are more likely to live near people who are economically struggling) and working-class whites.

When conservatives finally put together a strategy that can appeal to the rising elements of the electorate, it probably will not involve one big policy change proposed by one amazing candidate. It will likely take many incremental improvements in the conservative policy agenda, in rhetoric, and in use of media. When that strategy finally emerges, it will work about as well for white conservatives as it would for anyone else. In the meantime, the work will be slow and thankless—until it isn’t.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things . His previous columns can be found here .

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