- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hispanics are not yet sold on Hillary Clinton, who struggles to crack 60 percent among the voting bloc in poll after poll — putting her in a deep hole as she tries to rebuild the coalition that powered President Obama to two White House victories.

Mr. Obama’s 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 stunned Republicans, and party strategists said it was a large part of the explanation for his re-election. Mrs. Clinton, however, polls as low as 50 percent among Hispanics in head-to-head surveys in the weeks since Donald Trump sewed up enough delegates for the Republican Party nomination.

That’s not to say Hispanics are jumping on the Trump bandwagon. Indeed, while some surveys show him winning as much as 31 percent — which would be more than 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — others put his support among Hispanics as low as 14 percent.

That leaves as much as a fifth of voters not sold on either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump, and Democrats need them more than Republicans.

“They may be offended by Trump, but when they look at Hillary, generally they say, ‘One is insulting us, the other wants to take advantage of us politically.’ It presents a very interesting situation for Latinos,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

Mrs. Clinton’s backers aren’t worried. They say voters will come around once the Democratic primary is concluded and supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders — particularly young Hispanics enthralled with his more generous promises on immigration and economic policy — come back into the party’s fold.

But immigrant rights advocates warn that Democrats cannot assume massive Hispanic turnout for Mrs. Clinton. America’s Voice, a leading advocacy group, said the Democratic Party needs to promote more actively its support for legalizing immigrants and canceling deportations and must invest in a registration and turnout operation.

“While the fundamentals of the election look strong for Democrats, realizing this potential opportunity will be possible only if Democrats up and down the ballot lean into issues such as immigration, make a sustained investment in registration and turnout, and in the process energize the Latino voting community and other portions of the rising American electorate,” the group said in an election analysis.

The best Mrs. Clinton does in national polling is 62 percent — a mark she hit in the latest Fox News survey. Her lowest was 50 percent, which she scored in a Progressive Policy Polling survey that also included potential third-party candidates such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a potential Libertarian Party nominee. In that poll Mr. Trump scored just 14 percent support.

Worse yet, Mrs. Clinton’s favorables and unfavorables among Hispanics are about equal in polling. Mr. Trump’s rating is decidedly negative, but Mr. Sanders’ rating is overwhelmingly positive, underscoring that candidates — not just party identification — matter.

Analysts said Mrs. Clinton may be dragged down by her record. While in the Senate she voted to build 700 miles of border fencing, and when the surge of Central American illegal immigrants first hit in 2014, her initial reaction was to say they should be quickly deported.

She’s softened her stance on both issues during this year’s campaign, but Mr. Aguilar said Hispanic voters see her as opportunistic.

Mr. Aguilar said there’s even an opening for Mr. Trump to win a much larger portion of the vote — but he’d have to modify his stances, embracing some form of legalization for the current illegal immigrant population.

“The wall is not the problem with Latino voters. The problem is legalization,” said Mr. Aguilar, who added that, as of now, he won’t be able to support Mr. Trump either.

John McLaughlin, a longtime Republican pollster, released a national poll last week putting Mr. Trump at 27 percent support, which is what Mr. Romney got in 2012. Mrs. Clinton had 55 percent in that survey.

“People are not crazy about Hillary Clinton, and that’s an understatement,” Mr. McLaughlin said, saying that the same trends that are affecting her numbers overall are also playing out among Hispanics.

He said some Hispanics who are new arrivals, particularly Mexicans, are likely overwhelmingly opposed to Mr. Trump, but those who’ve been here longer and who have deeper roots are less monolithic.

Mr. Trump announced his campaign in June 2015 with a fierce denunciation of illegal immigration, vowing to build a border wall and to make Mexico pay for it. And he attacked Mexican society, saying it sends “rapists” and other bad elements to the U.S.

Hispanic Democrats have said, with language like that, there’s no chance Mr. Trump even equals Mr. Romney’s poor 2012 showing of 27 percent, no matter how divisive the Democratic primary.

“Are there young millennial Latinos who are voting for Bernie? Absolutely they are. And you’re going to tell me those same millennial Latinos are somehow going to wake up next November and vote for Donald Trump? I don’t see it happening,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and perhaps the most prominent Hispanic officeholder in Washington.

A PPP survey of Arizona found Mrs. Clinton doing much better there than she is nationally among Hispanics. She earned 67 percent support in the poll, compared to 21 percent for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Gutierrez said it’s not just Mexicans who react to Mr. Trump’s harsh rhetoric. He said when Latinos hear attacks on Mexicans now, they extrapolate to the entire Hispanic community and bristle.

“What you’ve got to understand about Latinos is that when you say ‘Mexicans,’ the vast majority of Latinos understand that it’s them,” he said.

But Michael McKenna, a GOP strategist, doubted that was the case, and said Mr. Trump’s showing among Hispanics may not be a fluke.

“Trump’s attack has not been against Hispanics. Trump’s attack has been against Mexicans, and in this country and every other country, nobody identifies himself as Hispanic, they identify themselves as ‘I’m Mexican,’ ‘I’m Guatemalan,’ ‘I’m Colombian,’” said Mr. McKenna. “If you think the Spanish speakers are all uniform — don’t be ridiculous.”

Mr. McKenna, who correctly predicted then-President George W. Bush’s surge — to more than 40 percent — of the Hispanic electorate in his 2004 re-election, said some Hispanic voters may even be drawn to Mr. Trump’s bold style of leadership.

“There’s a reason why the Spanish-speaking world has been host to some of the most interesting dictators of the last 200 years,” he said. “Some people in every culture prefer strong leaders to weak leaders.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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