Trump’s Secret to Victory in 2020: Hispanic Voters

David S. Bernstein is a contributing political analyst at WGBH News in Boston.

When President Donald Trump tweeted, on January 20, that he had reached 50 percent approval among Hispanic Americans, most fair-minded observers reacted with skepticism, if not outright disbelief. Trump was, after all, still the same man who announced his candidacy by accusing Mexico of sending “rapists” across the border, the same man who ordered refugee children separated from their parents, the same man who has made building a wall to shut out migrants the focal point of his presidency. Yet here he was, crowing characteristic bravado: “Wow, just heard that my poll numbers with Hispanics has gone up 19%, to 50%. That is because they know the Border issue better than anyone, and they want Security, which can only be gotten with a Wall.”

So, when even the pollsters responsible for the data Trump was touting—Marist Institute for Public Polling, for NPR and PBS NewsHour—cautioned of the high margin of error for that subset, and a possible over-sampling of Republicans, many on the left promptly dismissed it as an anomaly.

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One month later, however, and Trump is making an aggressive play for Hispanic-American votes in Florida and beyond. Meanwhile, new polls suggest Marist might have been onto something—and that Democrats should be genuinely worried that Hispanic voters could help re-elect Trump and keep the U.S. Senate in Republican control. If so, it will be a cosmic twist of fate: A party that has staked its future on a belief that America’s demographic picture is changing decidedly in its favor could find itself losing to a man whose politics of fear should be driving precisely those voters into the Democrats’ waiting arms.

In theory, the rosy predictions that once gave rise to chest-beating liberal books like “The Emerging Democratic Majority” are proving true: 2020 will be the first U.S. election in which Hispanics are the largest racial or ethnic minority in the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew estimates that 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote—a full two million more than black eligible voters, and more than 13 percent of the electorate. Hispanics figure to comprise at least 11 percent of the national vote, as they did in 2016 and 2018.

Many expected Hispanics to vote overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016. A Latino Decisions poll just before the election found Trump with support of just 18 percent of Hispanics. But the actual figure was 28 percent, which—given Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about immigrants—some analysts and pundits refused to believe from exit polls until further studies confirmed it. That was essentially just as good as Mitt Romney, as the 2012 Republican nominee, did with Hispanics—and it was enough to help Trump squeak to an Electoral College victory.

If Clinton had improved her share of the Hispanic vote by just three percentage points in Florida (from 62 percent to 65 percent of the Hispanic vote) and Michigan (from 59 percent to 62 percent), she would have won both states, and their 45 Electoral College votes. That would have been enough to make her president. Slightly bigger swings—let alone the Democrats’ 88 percent-8 percent margin among African-Americans—could have added Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin into the blue column as well.

Now, here’s the brutal truth for Democrats: If Hispanic Americans are in fact showing surging approval of Trump, he could be on his way to matching or exceeding the 40 percent won by George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election. If Trump does 12 percentage points better than his 2016 numbers with the growing Hispanic vote, it pretty much takes Florida, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina off the table for Democrats, who would then need to sweep Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to reach the necessary 270 electoral college votes. At the same time, that 12-point shift would give Trump a clear shot at winning Colorado and Nevada, states where Hispanic voters make up well over 10 percent of the electorate, and where Clinton won by five percentage points or less in 2016.

And if the Democratic path to the presidency looks hard without overwhelming Hispanic support, control of the Senate looks almost impossible. Any realistic scenario to gaining the necessary three seats—four if Trump retains the presidency—requires Democrats to defeat incumbents Cory Gardner in Colorado and Martha McSally in Arizona. Both have higher than average Hispanic electorates. Gardner won his seat in 2014 by evenly splitting the Hispanic vote. McSally, who was just appointed to succeed John McCain, narrowly lost her 2018 race to Kyrsten Sinema by winning just 30 percent of Hispanics. Any improvement among Hispanics for Republicans—or even just a lack of enthusiasm for turning out to vote against Trump—could easily return Gardner and McSally to the Senate, and leave Democrats in the minority.

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Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

A new poll from Morning Consult, partnering with Politico, found Trump’s approval rebounding to 45 percent overall, with Hispanic approval jumping especially sharply—to 42 percent, after bottoming out at 22 percent on January 21. That result, like the early Marist number, suffers from high margin of error for the ethnic subset. A more conservative rolling average puts the figure at around 35 percent, and rising.

Other polls also show Trump in the mid-30s with Hispanics. A new Economist/YouGov poll finds 32 percent approval rating among Hispanics; another from The Hill and HarrisX has it at 35 percent. In mid-January, Reuters/Ipsos found his approval among Hispanics at 36 percent, the highest since the 2016 election.

That’s about where Trump’s Hispanic approval spent most of 2018, according to previous Morning Consult polls, but about 10 points above where Reuters/Ipsos and Gallup polling showed him throughout the year. Whether keeping pace or on the rise, these polls suggest that Hispanics are responding to Trump as president more like Americans as a whole—close to 45 percent of whom approve of Trump—than like African-Americans, whose Trump approval remains around 10 percent.

That doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, cautions Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Polling. Despite that 50 percent approval rate, his poll found that only 27 percent of Hispanics said that they definitely plan to vote for Trump in 2020, with 58 percent definitely voting against him. Still, a definite 27 percent, if accurate, is already essentially equal to the percentage of Hispanic voters who chose Trump in 2016 (28 percent), or Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in 2012 (27 percent), or Republicans in the 2018 congressional midterms (29 percent).

There appears to be room for growth. Morning Consult’s polling showed Trump approval among Hispanics at or above 40 percent for much of his first year in office, perhaps in something of a grace period, to which he could potentially return.

And remember: pollsters in 2016 thought Trump would get only about 18 percent of the Hispanic vote; he actually got 28 percent. If polls are, for some reason, still underestimating his appeal among Hispanics by a similar margin, he could be on his way to 40 — and re-election.

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So why might Trump be suddenly surging with Hispanic voters?

It’s easy to assume that all Hispanic Americans must detest and disapprove of the president who derides and vilifies immigrants coming across the southern border. But it hasn’t been the reality. It is a large, diverse population that does not act as a monolith.

As a whole, Hispanic Americans are becoming politically more and more like non-Hispanic white Americans. Two-thirds of the Hispanic electorate now is American-born, and they are far more likely to approve of Trump than naturalized immigrants, according to Pew Research Center data. They remain more Democratic than non-Hispanic white voters in part just because so many of them are young adults and share many of their generation’s progressive views.

But as the political analysis site FiveThirtyEight recently noted, Hispanic Democrats are considerably less liberal than others in the party. Hispanics make up about 12 percent of those who identify as Democrats or who tend to lean Democratic; but they are 22 percent of Democrats who describe themselves as moderate or conservative. Hispanics, roughly half of whom are Catholic (and another quarter are former Catholics), skew conservative on social issues, including abortion.

After Trump’s midterms misfire of trying to rally the Republican base through immigrant-bashing, there is evidence, too, that the 2020 playbook will return to the more tried-and-true method of characterizing Democrats as extreme leftists. He, and other leading Republicans, are lately criticizing Democrats more on abortion, taxes and “socialist” positions on health care and climate change. He’s also made a targeted appeal to Cuban-Americans in Florida by vocally supporting the overthrow of Nicolas Maduro, the socialist leader who has seized power in Venezuela. There is good reason to think that those efforts will be effective on Hispanic voters—or, at least, effective enough.

The Democratic Party certainly hasn’t been wowing them. Hispanic approval of congressional Democrats, and of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer individually, is generally poor. There are few, if any, elected Democratic Hispanics who are national household names. After Clinton passed on the opportunity to put a Latino on the national ticket in 2016, the 2020 presidential field has just one Hispanic in the mix: Julian Castro, who has been overshadowed by a white fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ hope of a deal to protect the “Dreamers” who came to the United States as children, but have remained in legal limbo for years, ended with nothing to show for it. Immigration reform and labor issues have taken a back seat in the Democratic-controlled House to climate change, health care, and gun control—similar to what happened the last time Democrats took control of the House, in 2009.

And most importantly, things are pretty good for most Hispanic Americans. Trump is correct that they have enjoyed record-low unemployment, notwithstanding a small uptick at the start of this year. And, despite all of Trump’s rhetoric, and the fear it genuinely induced, not much has actually changed for most Hispanic families here. Deportations are a little down from Obama administration peaks, while immigrant arrests are a little up.

The good economy might be Obama’s doing more than Trump’s, but regardless it’s a powerful incentive to keep the current political leadership in place.

None of this is to suggest that Hispanics are entering a prolonged love affair with Trump. But it does mean that the eventual Democratic nominee can’t simply assume that Hispanic voters will flock to the polls to prevent his second term. If anything, the challenge for the party looks tougher than in 2016—when it arguably cost them the White House.

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