MIAMI — It’s a Monday morning, and Sen. Marco Rubio is scaring the hell out of some college students.
“I can buy information on any single individual in this classroom,” he says, standing in front of about 40 political science students at Florida International University. “I can overlay it with your voter information and make a profile — but I’m not done. I can get you directly. . . . I’m going to send an ad to [your] computer or, increasingly, directly to [your] television set. No matter what channel you are watching at 8:12, you’ll get an ad directed only to you and people like you.”
“That’s so creepy,” one student whispers to another.
“Right?” her friend agrees.
It’s some pretty intense face time with one of the brightest lights of the Republican Party, but there’s nothing about Rubio’s visit to campus in the student newspaper. (Last week’s top headline: “Gender neutral bathroom projected to open in summer.”) And why would there be? He’s here most Mondays and Fridays for his lesser-known side job: professor.
Today’s lesson is ostensibly about demographics, but it might as well be called “Poli Sci 401: Marco Rubio’s Path to the Presidency.” He begins by talking about historical voting trends, how groups such as Hispanics, African Americans and young people generally vote for Democrats.
But “there’s always the potential that an individual with the right combination of biography, message and behavior can change the behavior of traditional voting groups,” says the senator, looking dapper in his pressed white shirt, dark-blue-and-pink-striped tie and shined shoes. (His co-professor, Dario Moreno, is turned out in the raggedy beard and belly of a true academic.)
“The personality of the candidates themselves is so important,” Rubio continues. “It’s an unquantifiable quality that people look at you and say, ‘I’m voting for so-and-so because there is something about him that I like.’ ”
A student raises her hand and asks: “Do we spend too much time looking at a politician’s character rather than the actual issues?”
“I don’t know if it should be that way or not,” he says. “But it is.”
Rubio, 43, has been publicly toying with the idea of running for president for some time. Elected to the Senate in 2010, Rubio found a niche connecting the tea party and the GOP establishment. That he was a young Hispanic Republican with an ability to give a killer speech put him on the 2016 watch list. But the past couple of years haven’t been great for his prospects. He stuck his neck out on an immigration reform bill that drew the ire of conservatives and died in the House. Then Florida’s elder statesman, Jeb Bush, decided that he might like to run for president, leading many to wonder whether there would be room left in the GOP sweepstakes for Rubio to contend.
But just in case he does run, Rubio wants to make it known that he’s the candidate with the “biography, message and behavior” — to crib some class notes — that can win. He’s written a policy book, given speeches about upward mobility and foreign policy — and invited multiple reporters into the classroom to watch him mold young minds.
He’s easygoing and relaxed in this setting, delivering an hour-long lecture without notes and holding his students’ attention. He joked with one student — an aspiring journalist — that there will be no jobs left for her when she graduates, adding as a by-the-way that media enigma Matt Drudge lives in Miami.
“I’ve never been to his house, but I’ve seen it on Google Maps,” he says.
“Are you stalking journalists?” the student responds, laughing.
In an interview before the class, Rubio says, “I really like teaching these kids because they come from where I came from,” and most of them are Hispanic or African American. He began teaching at FIU in 2008 after leaving the Florida legislature. Senate ethics rules allow him to be paid $24,000 a year for his teaching, and the Senate’s less-than-crowded schedule allows him to attend most classes.
“I also like it because these professors can do whatever the hell they want,” he marvels. “They never stick to the syllabus.”
Admittedly, Rubio isn’t expected to do much academic heavy lifting. He’s not required to publish research; someone else grades the papers.
“We play off each other in the sense that I do the play-by-play while he does the color,” says Moreno, a tenured professor who has taught with Rubio since 2009. “A lot of what he does is thinking out loud. Here you have a potential presidential candidate really thinking out loud about his chances.”
And judging by the way he teaches the class, Rubio seems to believe his chances lie in being able to win over voters who don’t tend to vote Republican. Take the purely hypothetical situation he lays out to the classroom: Say there was a Republican who came from a working-class background, who ran against a Democrat who came from “all the money and all the connections.” That Republican might, just might, siphon off enough Democratic voters to win.
After class, Rubio admits that he’s got Hillary Rodham Clinton in mind here (“She’s running because she thinks it’s her turn”). But on campus, he tries to keep things nonpartisan.
“He’s very relatable and likable in class, even to people who don’t share his ideology,” says student Jeannine Thurston, 19, a registered Democrat. “I suppose he wants to win the votes of the students. He often jokes about giving us A’s to win our votes.”
“At first thought, I expected it to be biased — that it would be more of a campaign,” says student Nicole Betancourt, 21. “If anything, he teaches us like he’s an actual professor.”
Which of course raises the question, after the election of University of Chicago law professor Barack Obama, is America ready for another college professor president? Let’s ask the political scientist:
“I don’t think Obama’s presidency had turbulence because he was a professor,” Rubio says.