Mitt Romney’s performance in the 2012 election represented a low point for the Republican Party in presidential elections. Just eight years earlier, George W. Bush won reelection with a solid 40-something percent of the Latino vote – the high watermark for a Republican presidential candidate in terms of Latino support. Then came the collapse. In Bush’s second term, House Republicans conspired to kill comprehensive immigration reform legislation amid a flurry of nativist backlash against undocumented immigrants. John McCain abandoned his own support for immigration reform on his way to losing the 2008 race with just 31 percent of the Latino vote. Four years later, Mitt Romney completed his own rightward lurch on immigration by endorsing “self-deportation,” and he managed to do worse than McCain, taking just 27 percent of Latino voters.
That 27 percent was a wake-up call for the Republican establishment, which realized that they had to "rebrand" and improve the party’s reputation among one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate, and they had to do it quickly. According to a new Univision poll of Latino voters, the party has made precisely zero progress toward that goal. Right now, per the poll’s findings, the strongest Republican candidate in a head-to-head match-up with (likely) Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is Jeb Bush. His share of the Latino vote? A Mitt-like 27 percent.
The entire poll is just brutal for the GOP. The other candidates they tested against Clinton turned in sub-Romney numbers: Marco Rubio took 25 percent of Latinos, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul each took 22 percent, and Scott Walker brought up the rear with 20 percent. All of their favorability ratings are underwater except for Rubio, who’s at 35/34 favorable/unfavorable. The reason for these abysmal numbers goes well beyond the recent spate of attention Donald Trump has received for calling Mexican immigrants rapists (though Trump’s remarks certainly didn’t help).
What the numbers show is that the Republican Party is wildly out of step with Latino voters on issues that matter to them. Just 22 percent of Latino voters think Republicans better represent their views on economic policy and job creation. Only 20 percent feel the GOP better represents them on immigration. A full 54 percent of Latino voters said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The good news for Republicans in all this is that it’s early yet, and that this poll was taken at a particularly low moment for the party, when its most visible representative on immigration is an unlikable racist cartoon character. And it looks like they’ve finally discovered where bottom is in terms of Latino support – somewhere in the mid- to high 20s. Candidates like Jeb and Rubio, who at least aren’t overtly hostile to immigrants, stand a better chance of dragging their numbers up a bit than Scott Walker or Ted Cruz.
But the question is: How much better can they really do? Much of the discussion surrounding Latino support tends to revolve around immigration policy, which, as the Univision poll indicates, is important but in no way determinative. More Latino voters prioritize jobs and the economy (36 percent), education (18 percent), and healthcare (14 percent) than they do immigration (13 percent). So for a candidate like Jeb who stands by comprehensive immigration reform, his appeal will still be limited by his stances on the economic growth and job creation, which don’t deviate from Republican orthodoxy. The problem isn’t that Latinos disagree with Republicans on immigration policy. They disagree with Republicans, period. And while some of them are willing to break with segments of the party on immigration, you won’t find too many who are willing to give up massive tax cuts and draconian spending cuts as the core of their economic platforms.
As I noted the other day, none of this should suggest that the GOP is completely screwed in the coming presidential race – it’s still an open question as to whether the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, will be able to replicate the Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012. But even Republican pollsters like Whit Ayres recognize the need to dramatically expand the Republicans’ share of the Latino vote headed into 2016 to overcome the demographic shift currently eroding the party’s traditional coalition. Ayres said earlier this year that the Republican nominee, whoever it is, will have to do at least as well among Latinos as Bush did in 2004 to stand a chance of winning in 2016.
The Univision poll shows just how difficult it will be for the Republican nominee to make those sorts of meaningful gains. In the eyes of Latinos, the Republicans are still the party of Mitt Romney, and that’s lethal to them going forward.