Donald Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric may not have cost Republicans the Presidency in 2016. But candidates who ape his rhetoric are playing a dangerous game, and force Party leadership to revisit a provocative question: what happens when the zests of current populism meet the rigors of demographic change?
Elderly, white conservatives constitute today’s Republican base. A substantial part of this group tends to hold anti-immigrant views and policy preferences (like deportation) that are, understandably, inimical to American Latinos. This presents Republican politicians, and presidential candidates in particular, with a problem. To win favor among the base, they must generally espouse anti-immigrant positions, or at least pay lip service to related issues like border security. To win over the more diverse coalitions required by popular elections, however, they must also stay palatable to centrist voters. And an ever-larger number of these centrists are, you guessed it, Latinos. This is most true of the national electorate courted in presidential elections.
To belabor the obvious, Latinos vote. They turn out at lower rates than do other ethnic groups, but because they are fastest growing group among natural-born Americans, they command considerable attention from electoral strategists in both parties. To overcome their potentially conflicting commitments, Republicans have to identify the minimum share of the Latino vote needed to win a given election. These “Latino thresholds” have grown more important with time, and GOP presidential candidates have adjusted campaign messaging to secure them. Recall that American Latinos are overwhelmingly religious, and relatively conservative on social issues. Candidates championing pro-life and traditional marriage values, and (ironically) tough-on-crime policies have resonated with Latinos in past elections. In 2004, for example, President Bush deployed such rhetoric to great success in heavily Latino states like Florida, managing to secure 40% of the total Latino vote (just over the roughly 39% threshold his campaign strategists identified).
Twelve years later, however, and strategists both parties continue to accept 40% as an approximate Latino threshold for Republican victory. In 2008, Party leadership attributed a great part of John McCain’s loss to his less-than-40% showing among Latinos. Pundits reiterated this explanation for Mitt Romney’s loss four years later, citing his 27% showing among Latinos as crucial to Obama’s reelection. And even now, many on the right continue to assert that the path to Republican victory runs through a 40% threshold. This would present headaches enough, given recent indices of Latino support for the various candidates. Among Latinos, Hillary enjoys a 40-point net positive favorability rating, to Jeb Bush’s decidedly underwhelming 11. (Jeb remains, by a substantial margin, the GOP candidate most popular with Latinos.) This advantage is not lost on Ms. Clinton, who just this month published an op-ed in Univision (with whom she cultivates close ties) pledging to reform immigration policy, and stop deportations. Somewhere, Karl Rove is already grimacing. But it gets worse. In 2004, Latino votes represented just 6% of total votes cast, nationally. A new model points out that 40% is thus wildly underestimated today. This summer the polling firm Latino Decisions estimated a new Latino threshold for the 2016 election, nationally and by state. Noting that the Latino vote, as a share of the electorate, has grown steadily since 1996 (at a rate of almost one percentage point per election), it extrapolates the figure to roughly 10.4% in 2016. The corresponding Latino threshold, they conclude, becomes 47%.
History is not without a sense of irony.
The Latino Decisions model makes assumptions, which bear mention. First, it assumes that Latinos will enjoy a robust mobilization effort (spearheaded by Democrats, but with significant Republican outreach efforts in states like Florida and Ohio). This works into the main assumption: that the Latino vote will continue to increase at historical rates. The model postulates a marginal decrease in black voter turnout – largely because Barack Obama is not running, but also because Republicans’ voter disenfranchisement laws will kick into effect. Finally, it assumes that only two candidates participate in the general election. Third or even fourth candidates, like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, would significantly change the equation. (And a two-candidate general is by no means inevitable, given this year’s eclectic cast.) But barring acts of God, these assumptions are generally reasonable.
Enter the unforeseen and colorful candidacy of one Donald J. Trump. For brevity’s sake, I will merely suggest that contrary to his assertions, Mr. Trump will not carry the Latino vote. How Trump’s rhetoric impacts the other candidates, however, is unclear. A Gallup poll of Latinos, conducted over the summer, indicates that they distinguish between Trump and his competitors. Bush and Rubio enjoy favorable ratings among 34% and 24% of respondents, respectively. In swing states, they are even more popular. And Trump himself is less reviled than one might expect. Perhaps overwhelmed by current abundance, more than half of Latinos are ambivalent towards the GOP field generally. Many pundits argue, consequently and quite plausibly, that fears of lost Latino support are misplaced, that the ‘Trump effect’ is temporary, and that the general election will provide ample opportunity to redress rhetorical damage inflicted now.
Perhaps. But consider three thoughts. First, an individual’s level of political information correlates closely to the probability that they will vote. More politically informed Latinos are more likely to notice the explosion of anti-immigrant bombast, and to associate it with the GOP. In other words, the people who hear GOP-damaging comments are also more likely to vote. And Spanish-speaking networks and immigration lobbies are steadily characterizing the GOP brand. Second: as the immigration discussion moves rightward, the nominee’s inevitable pivot to the center becomes harder to pull off. Over the summer, Trump’s rhetoric brought unusual attention to the immigration issue. Conservative media outlets devoted extensive coverage to an alleged crime wave, fueled by illegal immigration. These developments shaped the language that colored both Republican debates. And primary voters, unconcerned with political strategy, will demand action on issues they deem important. The same constituents, who repeatedly thwarted even Bush’s attempts at immigration reform, are no less determined today. They will punish candidates who do not take tough positions on immigration, and support the ones that do. Finally, Clinton is using this time to steadily build support among Latino leaders.
If Latino Decisions got it right, Republicans should hope that voting Latinos conclude something like, “GOP candidates? Mostly crazy – though some, we assume, are good people.”