Can the Republicans Close Their Gap with Latinos?

By Eric Hershberg and Robert Albro

Photo credits: Iprimages, Michael Vadon, Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo credits: Iprimages, Michael Vadon, Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Remarks about immigration made by flamboyant New York billionaire and aspiring presidential candidate Donald Trump have embarrassed many Republicans – and angered many Latinos – but also opened the way for several of his competitors to appear more moderate on the issue.  Echoing comments he made in a televised debate on 6 August, Trump on Sunday issued a policy paper claiming, “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been … using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries).”  He demands that Mexico pay for an impenetrable wall along the border and that Washington deport many migrants, beef up border patrols and narrow opportunities for legal immigration.  Although Trump has often claimed he could win the Latino vote, a poll by Huffington Post/YouGov in June found that 82 percent of Latinos don’t take Trump seriously as a candidate, and subsequent surveys indicate that his rhetoric has damaged the Republicans’ image among them.  (Other polls indicate that Democrats’ immigration proposals, in contrast, have the support of some 60 percent of Latinos.)  The views of the country’s fastest-growing demographic group are significant when considering their prominence in “swing” states such as Florida (24 percent of the population and 14.6 of registered voters), Colorado (21 and 14.2), Nevada (27 and 16) and Virginia (8 and 5).

Most of the 15 other major Republican candidates have tried to ignore Trump’s remarks and the immigration issue overall.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said he “salutes” Trump and, eschewing “Republican-on-Republican violence,” refused to criticize his views.  But two others – former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio governor John Kasich – have staked out somewhat more moderate positions.

  • Bush stresses the need for more aggressive border enforcement and a crackdown on undocumented residents of “sanctuary cities,” but he also called for an immigration policy that included “documented status” – but not citizenship – for an unspecified number of them. Having a Mexican-born wife and mixed-race children also sets him apart.
  • Kasich last week noted that undocumented migrants are “people who are contributing significantly” to the United States. He said, “A lot of these people who are here are some of the hardest-working, God-fearing, family-oriented people you can ever meet,” and he said he favors a pathway to legal status for people already in the country, adding that such provisions could be part of an immigration reform package.
  • Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was ostracized by his Republican colleagues in 2013 for proposing reforms along the same lines, has appeared reluctant to criticize Trump, Bush or Kasich – making him possibly the biggest loser on the issue for now.

The elections are still 14 months off, and electoral dynamics change.  Latinos don’t figure in the Republican primaries, and it’s too early to speculate how their voices will play until next year – at which point Donald Trump probably will be seeking celebrity through other endeavors.  Republican strategists have already said that their candidates won’t try hard to court Latinos – and risk alienating the roughly 20 percent of their base in swing states who hold hard-core anti-immigration positions.  Nonetheless, Bush and Kasich’s rhetoric, while still vague on actual policies, may give the party a chance to claim to Latinos that not all Republicans are out to get them.  No Republican on the front line today appears likely to attract majority support among Latinos, but a moderate-sounding approach to immigration could take the rough edges off the party’s image, reduce Latino opposition to it and diminish the issue as a Democratic Party advantage.

August 18, 2015