Republicans Haven't Stopped Digging Their Hole with Latino Voters

(Photo: AP/Wilfredo Lee)

GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz stand onstage during the March 10 Republican presidential debate.

You might remember how back in March 2012, Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom dismissed concerns about Romney's ability to pivot to the general election by saying that moving from the primary to the general is "almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." Romney couldn't, though: He remained the man he had been during the primaries, someone who was so eager to ingratiate himself to suspicious Republican base voters that he sometimes descended into self-parody ("I was a severely conservative Republican governor," he said proudly at one point). No matter how he tried, he couldn't convince voters that the person they saw in the primary was something other than the president he would have been. That was particularly true among Latinos, who gave Romney only 27 percent of their votes according to exit polls, down from 31 percent for John McCain in 2008 and 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004.

You've probably heard the next chapter of that story: If Republicans don't significantly improve their performance among Latinos, it's all but mathematically impossible for them to win a national majority. With all the talk of unpledged delegates and contested conventions, this subject hasn't come up as much lately, but Republicans have kept digging themselves even deeper into a hole with those voters. Last week, Donald Trump issued another of his bizarre proposals, one that gave Latinos a new reminder of how much contempt he holds for them. If Mexico refuses to hand over billions of dollars to pay for the super-classy border wall he wants to build between our country and theirs, he said, he'll use terrorism laws to cut off the remittances people living in the U.S. send back to their loved ones in Mexico.

Forget for a moment about the fact that this proposal is probably unconstitutional and certainly idiotic. Think about how this sounds to you if you're Latino, whether your family is from Mexico or somewhere else. Trump wants to tell people you know and care for, or at the very least people who are a lot like those you know and care for, that they can't help their families without being targeted by a terrorism law.

And at some point in the general election, Trump is going to tell Latinos that if they know what's good for them, they should vote for him. How's that going to be received?

It'll make Mitt Romney's remark about "self-deportation" (that we should make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they high-tail it back to wherever they fled from) look like a lovely compliment.

There's still a chance that Trump won't be the nominee, of course. But the next logical person, Ted Cruz, isn't much better from Latinos' perspective. When The Washington Post and Univision polled a large sample of Latinos in February, they found that Hillary Clinton beat Trump in a head-to-head matchup by 73-16, but she also beat Cruz by 65-27.

If Cruz is hoping for cultural affinity to mitigate those losses, he'll probably be disappointed. It starts with his biography; unlike his departed opponent Marco Rubio, Cruz didn't grow up embedded within Latino culture and doesn't speak fluent Spanish. Far more important, however, is that Latinos just don't agree with him on issues, particularly those related to immigration. Like Trump, Cruz wants build a wall along our southern border and deport all the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in America. In recent months, I've asked multiple pollsters about this, and the response I've gotten from them is that while Latinos might be more inclined to pull the lever for a Latino candidate in a down-ballot race where they don't know all that much about the person running, ethnic identification isn't going to overcome a serious disagreement about issues. And Cruz is most definitely not in tune with Latino voters on issues, particularly immigration, where he's gone further to the right than anyone except Trump.

What we've seen in the Republican primaries is that as they tried to appeal to their party's base voters, the candidates have been caught in a cycle rolling rightward, where they keep attempting to outdo each other in their conservatism and also keep encouraging voters to give vent to their more reactionary beliefs. No one has done more of that encouraging than Trump, the likely nominee.

In a poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute, 64 percent of Republicans backing him agreed with the statement "It bothers me when I come in contact with immigrants who speak little or no English." It's hardly the only reason he's winning, but more than any of the other candidates, Trump has tapped into the sense of alienation many white Republicans have, the feeling that as the years have passed, their country has changed and left them behind. To me, the most strange and revealing TV ad of the primary campaign was this one, in which Rubio said "This election is about the essence of America, about all of us who feel out of place in our own country." That feeling was so powerful that even the young bilingual son of immigrants who everyone said represented the future of the GOP tried to channel it, even if his appeal was supposed to be precisely that he didn't feel out of place in our changing country.

The voters who feel that way have been cajoled, courted, and complimented by the Republican candidates. Some of what those candidates have proposed may already have slipped from your memory—like back in August, when many of them (including Trump and Cruz) rushed to say they'd like to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship—but rest assured, Latino voters haven't forgotten.

According to many analyses, the Republicans will need somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of Latino votes to assemble a national majority. In other words, they'll need to not just do better than Romney or McCain did among America's largest minority group, but much better. And we've still got a couple of months of pandering to the GOP base left before their nomination is settled. Is there anyone who thinks that once they start shaking that Etch A Sketch for the general election, the image they've painted up until now is going to disappear?

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