He was told being strict on illegal immigration would doom him among Hispanic voters.
Yet President Trump has defied their predictions, from the moment he delivered his iconic address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013 — warning the Republican Party that legalizing 11 million illegal immigrants was political suicide — through the 2016 presidential election and into the White House.
Now nine months out from his second Election Day, and despite a tenure in the White House that has involved building a border wall, stepping up deportations and insulting some Latin American nations as “s—hole” countries, Mr. Trump is as strong as ever among Hispanic voters, according to the polls.
One poll puts his approval rating as high as 44% and shows him winning 41% of the Hispanic vote in a head-to-head match-up with Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. That would best his 2016 showing of 28% support and put him in the running with President George W. Bush for the highest share of Hispanic votes for a GOP candidate.
“Latinos have lost the fear of Donald Trump,” said Alfonso Aguilar, who ran the Department of Homeland Security’s citizenship office in the Bush administration and now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
Democrats have taken notice, too.
Kristian Ramos, a former spokeswoman for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, published a piece in the Atlantic sounding alarms about Mr. Trump’s numbers.
“Displeasure with the president over the past three years has not led to an increase in support for the opposing party,” she said.
Mr. Trump has improved his standing among Hispanics in just the last week in two regular polls — the Politico/Morning Consult survey and the Economist/YouGov survey. Last week both had the president at 35% approval in the Hispanic breakout of their national survey. This week he’s at 39% in the Morning Consult poll and 38% in the YouGov survey.
His best numbers came in an Emerson College Polling survey last week. The poll director told The Washington Times that Mr. Trump had a 44% approval rating, and in a head-to-head showdown with Mr. Sanders, the leading Democrat, Mr. Trump garnered 41% support.
The 40% mark is an important threshold.
In 2004, running on a platform of legalization of illegal immigrants, Mr. Bush won 44% of the vote, according to the national exit poll. Some analysts said that seemed high. They crunched numbers from the state exit polling to show he won 40%.
The National Annenberg Election Survey put Mr. Bush’s tally at 41%, while the William C. Velasquez Institute’s post-election poll put it at 35%.
In the wake of that election, analysts said 40% was a milestone the GOP needed to reach among the growing Hispanic voting bloc if it wanted to win the White House in the future.
In 2008, Sen. John McCain lost the presidential race with 31% support among Hispanics. Mitt Romney lost four years later, garnering just 27% support, according to exit polling.
Mr. Romney’s loss set off a round of soul-searching within the GOP.
The Republican National Committee, in its post-election “autopsy” report, said party politicians needed to embrace legalization. That message was pounded from the stage at CPAC in 2013, with speaker after speaker saying it was time to change the party’s law-and-order stance.
Then Mr. Trump strode to the stage.
He joked about President Barack Obama and his TV show “The Apprentice,” he complained about the loss of American manufacturing, he told Republicans not to cut Social Security and Medicare — and he told them to forget about legalizing illegal immigrants.
“You’re on a suicide mission,” he told CPAC, saying it was impossible for Republicans to outbid Democrats.
“The fact is, 11 million people will be voting Democrat. You can be out front, you can be the spearhead, you can do whatever you want to do, but every one of those 11 million people will be voting Democrat,” he said.
He said the party needed to look at legal immigrants from Europe instead, and particularly those who study at American universities, then are forced to leave at the end.
He’s been remarkably consistent in the years since, vowing in the 2016 campaign to build a border wall and step up deportations, and complaining that Mexico sent rapists to the U.S.
As president, he has been accused of breaking apart families and locking “kids in cages” at the border, and has tussled with Mexico and Central America over the continued flow of illegal immigrants.
But Mr. Aguilar said Hispanics still see Mr. Obama as the king of deportations and they credit Mr. Trump for some of his overtures, such as offering a plan to legalize “Dreamers.”
“Trump is not, on immigration, the monster that Democrats described three years ago,” Mr. Aguilar said.
Hispanic voters also see an improving economy and tax cuts — and many fear the Democratic alternatives to Mr. Trump.
“I don’t think that they think or behave differently than average Americans. Immigration has been neutralized and on the other issues they’re thinking the same,” Mr. Aguilar said.
Lydia Camarillo, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, questioned the value of most polling at this point in 2020, pointing to the small subsample sizes pollsters use for Hispanics. The Morning Consult poll, which is one of the larger samples, surveyed 193 Hispanics, leaving a large margin of error.
Ms. Camarillo said she puts more stock in a recent Univision/Latino Decisions poll, which specializes in Hispanic voters, and which showed Mr. Trump with just 27% support.
“I think 27% is about right,” she said.
That would put Mr. Trump at about the same level of support he had in 2016, when he defied the pundits’ predictions and won the White House.
Ms. Camarillo said the president maintains a base of support among Hispanics who side with him on abortion and among those who support his tax cuts.
She said she expects an increase in Hispanic participation in this year’s election, though how much depends on the efforts the parties make and whether Democrats strive for their votes nationwide.
She pointed to Michigan, where Mr. Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 15,000 votes. Ms. Camarillo said far more than that many new Hispanic voters have registered in the state over the last few years.
Jim McLaughlin, a GOP pollster who does work for the Trump team, said he expects Mr. Trump to top 40% among Hispanics nationally.
“They like what the president has done on the economy, they support school choice and they want border security, he said.
Plus, Democrats’ pursuit of Mr. Trump may have backfired, he said: “It was interesting during impeachment, it really turned off Hispanics. They repeatedly said they know a coup when they see one.”
Those studying the Hispanic vote look to Florida, a key place for the GOP to build support.
A University of North Florida survey showed the president with 34% approval and winning anywhere from 24% to 33% of Hispanic support in head-to-head match-ups with the top Democrats.
That would be a slide from 2016, when exit polling showed he won 35% of Hispanic voters in the state.
But Mr. Aguilar figures Mr. Trump should do better than that in Florida this year.
He points to the results from the state’s governor’s and U.S. Senate races in 2018, when the Republican candidates won both races and received about 45% Hispanic support.
He and Mr. McLaughlin said Mr. Trump’s numbers should solidify if Democrats nominate Mr. Sanders. Socialism doesn’t play well to Florida Hispanics, the two men said.