With his angry rants against undocumented immigrants, Donald Trump is a stark reminder of the GOP’s terrible problem with Latino voters. In short, Latinos don’t like—or trust—the Republican Party.
But Trump also illustrates a second, more complicated problem. As long as his rhetoric has a place in Republican politics—as long as it has defenders—it won’t just alienate Latinos. It will offend and turn off voters who have conservative ideas and beliefs but won’t sanction or support anti-immigrant sentiment.
Before looking at this other side to the “Latino problem,” it’s worth examining the first one. In the past two presidential elections, Democrats have won more than two-thirds of Latino voters, reversing and eroding gains made during George W. Bush’s administration. Part of this is anti-Republican backlash after the 2008 recession and the tail end of the Bush presidency, but even more is the intense anti-immigration wave that swept the GOP in the wake of the Tea Party’s rapid rise to prominence.
In the past six years, GOP states have targeted Latinos for greater scrutiny, GOP officials have called for “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants, and GOP presidential candidates have stood with nakedly anti-immigrant politicians. And although there are smart, reasoned arguments against comprehensive immigration reform and other permissive immigration policies, the rhetoric that counts—that resonates with actual Republican voters—comes from figures such as Iowa Rep. Steve King, who once warned that a path to citizenship would “destroy our republic.”
At this point, Latinos don’t just oppose particular candidates, such as Mitt Romney. They disdain the Republican label itself. According to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center, just 10 percent of Latinos say that the Republican Party “has concern” for their communities, compared with 50 percent who say as much about the Democratic Party. Few agree with Republicans on policy—especially immigration—and just 27 percent of Latinos identify with the Republican Party, compared with 63 percent who identify with Democrats. Not surprisingly, this has carried over to the 2016 GOP presidential field. As of October, notes Latino Decisions, just 32 percent of Latino voters would consider a vote for Jeb Bush, just 35 percent would consider a vote for Sen. Marco Rubio, and just 24 percent would consider a vote for Sen. Ted Cruz.
Writing for the Washington Post—and prompted by Trump and the qualified defense he received from writers such as Rich Lowry of the National Review—conservative columnist Michael Gerson examines the two Republican camps for dealing with this “Latino problem” ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
The first camp, best represented by Jeb Bush, wants to expand the Republican brand into Latino communities. It believes the GOP is “too closely identified with the boardroom and the country club,” Gerson writes, and wants to fix that with outreach to new constituencies. If Republicans could return to their earlier performance with Latino voters, they could win Colorado and Nevada, or at least make them competitive again in national elections.
But this isn’t a costless strategy. In reaching for Latino voters—with greater support for immigration reform or redistributive policy—Republicans risk alienating core supporters in the white working class who associate immigration with economic insecurity. Which brings us to the second, and arguably dominant, camp. These reformers also believe that the GOP “has been too dominated by corporate interests and needs to identify more directly with the economic frustrations of working-class voters,” Gerson writes. Their solution, however, is a greater focus on the white working class. If a Republican could win 65 percent, or more, of the white vote, he would carry places such as Ohio and Iowa, as well as Democratic states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Not only does it make up for Colorado and Nevada, but it also makes up for Florida, another vital state where Latino voters are concentrated and critical to success.
In some ways, notes Gerson, Trump is the extreme version of this strategy. He speaks to the anxieties of working-class whites, channeling fear and discomfort with angry, belligerent nationalism. But there are other ways to make this pitch. In his successful campaigns for governor, Scott Walker mobilized huge numbers of supporters in the reddest counties of Wisconsin to win narrow victories over Democratic opponents.
Part of this was raw partisanship—galvanizing conservative voters against unions and public employees. But part of it was playing the suburbs against the cities—Milwaukee in particular—and harnessing the racially polarized politics of the area. And on the stump in the Republican primary, notes the New York Times, Walker “wins applause by noting his efforts to require drug tests of people receiving public assistance, and uses language reminiscent of old, loaded appeals about indolent welfare recipients.” As one conservative writer told the Times, his is a “populist strategy that doubles down on turning out disaffected white men.”
But this brings us back to the second problem. The appeals the GOP uses to turn out disaffected whites—and maximize white support writ large—could backfire, both with Latinos and with other whites, who have nonwhite friends, neighbors, spouses, and partners and see themselves as tolerant. In working to maximize their share of the white vote, Republicans who take this path could lower their ceiling.
It’s not clear that there’s a way out of this dilemma. But if there is, his name is Marco Rubio. There’s no evidence the Florida senator can pull Latinos back to the Republican Party, but as a young Spanish-speaking politician of Cuban descent, he projects the same cosmopolitanism of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Even if he abandons immigration reform and tries to maximize the party’s share of the white vote, he doesn’t trigger the same anxieties from white voters as a more traditional politician might. Rubio bridges the gap between the two camps and lets the GOP change its look without changing its tune.