Opinion

New Poll Suggests Republicans Have A Real Opening With Latino Voters – If They Can Figure Out How to Seize It

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

Many Democrats are gloating over the electoral advantage they expect to have with Latino voters in 2016. They point to comments that Donald Trump has made about “rapists” and “serial killers” among undocumented Mexican immigrants – and his persistent front-runner status — as a potential kiss of death for the GOP. They assume — not without reason — that Republicans could face stiff challenges in battleground states like Florida and Nevada where the Democrats’ highly mobilized Latino base helped tilt the presidential election toward Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

But according to a recent nationwide poll, the Latino vote is far from a lock for the Democrats. In fact, a sizable majority of Latino voters 18-55 years of age — 63 percent, in fact – are still “persuadable,” the new poll suggests. That means these voters will likely cast their ballots depending on how each party frames the issues and campaigns for their vote. That’s an enormous opportunity for Republicans, the pollsters say, but only if they figure out how to seize it.

Overall, the two polling companies — David Binder Research, which has worked in the past for Hillary Clinton, and Moore Information, which largely polls for Republicans — found that barely a third of Latinos consider themselves Democrats, and just 8 percent identify as Republican. That’s a significant drop for both parties from previous years. Instead, most Latinos appear to identify themselves as “independents” with no firm partisan allegiances at all.  

Another significant poll finding is that immigration reform – a top issue for Democrats in their persistent efforts to stigmatize the GOP as “anti-Latino” — is nowhere near the top issue for Latino voters – jobs and the economy, followed by health care, education, and terrorism are. Immigration is still important, but it ranks a distant fifth. That means, contrary to widespread belief, that Republicans may not have to bend over backwards on an “amnesty” program to win more support from this rapidly-growing demographic but could still run the risk of underperforming if they continue to be perceived as “intolerant,” the pollsters found.

Not all analysts agree with the findings of the new polls. Latino respondents may express greater openness to both parties when they speak with pollsters, some critics note, but they still tilt heavily Democratic when they actually cast their ballots. Just look at the results of head-to-head polling between various GOP candidates and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in recent months. In some polls as few as 10-15 percent — and in other polls no more than 20-25 percent — of Latinos say they would support Republican candidates in 2016 – hardly a ringing endorsement. And the number of “undecideds” in these polls rarely exceeds 10 percent, suggesting that Latino partisan allegiances are anything but volatile.

One emerging exception to this broad pattern may be Marco Rubio, who registered a 38 percent share of the Latino vote against Clinton in a MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll in early December, and 36 percent in a just-released NBC poll. Rubio’s share of the Latino vote has increased significantly during the past two months, while other GOP candidates – including the surging Ted Cruz — still hover in the mid-20s. In the Binder-Moore poll, Rubio also had the lowest negative rating of all GOP candidates – just 28 percent, compared to 41 percent for Jeb Bush and a whopping 63 percent for Donald Trump (no results were reported for Ted Cruz).

What’s striking about this finding is that Rubio has abandoned his past support for a broad compromise on amnesty – unlike Bush, who openly supports comprehensive immigration reform. Rubio, of course, is Hispanic, and still touts his immigration experience, in contrast to Cruz, who has long played it down. Whatever the reason, it only seems to confirm that Latino voters are not the unsophisticated single-issue constituency that Democrats so often portray them to be.

Overall, the Binder-Moore poll contains mostly bad news for Democrats. While more than 60 percent of Republican-leaning Latinos admitted to having voted Democratic in the past, more than 40 percent of Democratic-leaning Latinos say they have crossed over previously to support Republicans candidates. Since Latino Democrats outnumber Latino Republicans 4-1, the GOP may have more to gain from large-scale crossovers — but only if Republicans can overcome their internal divisions and figure out how to position themselves consistently with Latino voters.

Why go chasing after a relatively small silver of the national electorate and risk turning off GOP base voters? Conservative commentator Ann Coulter has suggested it’s a fool’s errand. But if the Binder-Moore poll is right, Republicans may have an opportunity to straddle diverse constituencies with culturally tailored messages without abandoning bedrock conservative principles. That’s not “Hispandering” – it’s simply good politics.