Donald Trump and the Hispanic Vote

The billionaire’s campaign is alienating the fastest-growing demographic in American politics—and the talk-radio right treats damage control as heresy.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

With Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush running for president, many Republicans hoped 2016 would be the year when the GOP won its biggest ever share of the Hispanic vote. Now Donald Trump is the frontrunner. And if he hangs on to win the nomination, the GOP will almost certainly do worse among Hispanic voters than ever before. Earlier this week, Gallup released an extraordinary poll about how Hispanics view the Republican candidates. Jeb Bush is easily the most popular. Ted Cruz is least popular among the traditional choices. Nearly everyone else fits in between them in a range so narrow that the 5 percent margin of error could scramble their order.

But not Trump, who is wildly, staggeringly unpopular among Hispanics:

Those numbers reflect Hispanic opinion before Trump had a public clash with Jorge Ramos of Univision, one of the most popular journalists among the demographic. While overblown and not entirely Trump’s fault––the journalist was blatantly interrupting as Trump tried to call on a different reporter while fielding questions––the incident is likely to make Trump even less liked among Hispanic voters.

Of course, the election is a long way off. And so far, Hispanics aren’t holding their dislike of the Republican frontrunner against the GOP generally. Even so, Trump’s presence is forcing some of the other candidate into increasingly thorny dilemmas.

Jeb Bush’s experience is illustrative.

The former Florida governor, whose father and brother both expressed compassion toward immigrants, is well-positioned to compete for Hispanic voters in a general election, perhaps with his Mexican-born wife at his side during important moments.

After a Wednesday rally in Pensacola, Florida, he was asked about Trump’s clash with Ramos, and said, “I think people with the press ought to be treated with a little more respect and dignity.” The political logic of that statement is straightforward: It dings a rival and signals Hispanics that their dignity is respected.

Here’s what happened next:

Opinion leaders on the populist right immediately cast the incident as Jeb Bush betraying their tribe. Here is what Limbaugh said Thursday on his talk radio show:

This is so hard ... I mean, I don't know a person who does not admire the Bush family.  I clearly do.  The Bush family has been so good to me and our family.  But, man, that's why it's tough. Folks, it's why it’s tough getting to know these people that you end up talking about.  I try not to, for that reason. But Jeb Bush has come out and sided with Jorge Ramos over Donald Trump.

Jeb Bush says that Jorge Ramos or however he pronounces his name ... You know, I shouldn't mention this. I know it's bad form to mention, but this guy is so tiny, I can't ... Every time I see the guy he get tinier and tinier. He's dwarfed by everybody, which doesn't mean anything. I mean, it's just an observance. Sorry. At any rate, Jeb is out there, and he says that Jorge Ramos deserves a little more respect; that Donald Trump had no business treating Jorge Ramos that way. And I'm sorry, that is exactly what is wrong. Jorge Ramos was out to destroy Donald Trump. That's what he's tried to, and he'll try to destroy Jeb Bush at some point.

No matter what Jeb thinks, if Jeb is the nominee, he's gonna be destroyed by all these people that he's urging us to be nice to. And I don't know what it is. Is it the effort to differentiate himself from Trump? What it is it’s an illustration of how behind the times and out of it this entire Republican establishment is. I mean, how obtuse do you have to be to believe that where we are right now in 2015, the route to Republican victory requires that we appease Democrats and the media?  You think...? How in the world do you think you're gonna attract a majority of voters?

Limbaugh went on to say that that Republicans like Jeb “are wedded to the idea that they have somehow got to disprove what they think people think of them. And the way they're gonna disprove all that—meaning Republican branding as racist, sexist, bigot, homophobes, uncooperative, partisan—is they've gotta be uber-polite, soft-spoken, and promise to work with everybody ... It's clear as a bell.”

That last bit sums things up: Republicans like Jeb Bush look at America’s demographics and Trump’s numbers and conclude that in order for the GOP to succeed, it has to persuade Hispanics that it isn’t a party that is hateful toward them.

And Limbaugh and his ilk regard that very project as a heresy.

Thus the GOP’s problem. Given the views of the talk-radio base, on the one hand, and Hispanic voters, on the other, it is conceivable that there is no Republican candidate who can both win the 2016 GOP primary and the 2016 presidential election. At best, it’s a much trickier needle than anything Democrats have to thread:

Could the Republicans lose Hispanics big and still win the election? In 2016, maybe. Beyond that, the trick will get harder to pull off with every election. And if Trump improbably wins the presidency, he’ll either abandon his immigration promises (my bet) or try mass deportation and thereby guarantee that the GOP will lose Hispanics for a generation or more.