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The “Trump Effect” The GOP Didn’t See Coming

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As Candidates Double Down on Hardline Immigration Stances, Latino Voters Mobilize 

Despite evidence coming out of Iowa that GOP primary voters in fact, don’t view immigration as a top issue—immigration ranked a distant fourth out of four issues in network entrance polling—that hasn’t stopped the field from doubling down on the hardline immigration stances they will come to regret when the primaries are over.  Republican candidates who continue down this path, and fail to learn from the mistakes of Mitt Romney’s stinging 2012 defeat, do so at their own peril.

The entire Republican field has run on pledges to ramp up immigration enforcement, block any achievable path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and to end executive action programs such as DACA which has benefitted more than 700,000 Dreamers. Although Donald Trump finished second in Iowa, his mass-deportation policies and attempts to mainstream racism toward immigrants have influenced a Republican field that now stands farther to the right on immigration than Mitt Romney in 2012—a stance that recent polling is starting to show is tarnishing the GOP brand among Latinos and mobilizing Latino turnout.

Said Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice: “There are now two definitions of the term ‘Trump Effect.’  In one, Trump pulls the entire Republican field to the right on immigration in a way that will be hard to recover from during the general election.  The second ‘Trump Effect’ is mobilizing pro-immigration voters to engage in new ways.  Republicans are talking against voters’ family members, friends, and neighbors.  It’s personal, and the GOP should be very worried about this Trump Effect.”

Despite the warnings from the infamous RNC post-election autopsy report, Republican candidates are intent on repeating the mistakes of the Romney campaign – defining themselves as immigration hardliners in the primary and destroying their general election viability in the process. As Maggie Haberman of the New York Times notes in a recent assessment of Trump voters in New Hampshire, candidates like Trump are playing on the same voter anxieties about immigration exploited by Republican Scott Brown in his 2014 campaign. The piece quotes Eric Fehrnstrom, a former Romney advisor and consultant on Brown’s 2014 campaign who characterizes the RNC 2012 autopsy report —despite Romney’s  dismal 23% support among Latino voters— as a “huge miscalculation.” Despite being praised for effectively tapping into voter anxiety on immigration, Scott Brown still lost to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in the Senate race in New Hampshire and NH voters preferred “legal status” over “deportation” of most unauthorized immigrants by a 57%-40% margin in the 2014 network exit polls.

There also is growing evidence that the GOP field’s anti-immigrant campaigning spurred record Latino turnout for Democrats in Iowa’s caucuses, increased naturalization drives across the country and as Suzanne Gamboa notes in her latest piece at NBC News, is even alienating Latino Republicans. In Iowa, pro-immigrant voters and activists helped ensure that candidates defined their hardline stances on immigration policy and Latinos turned out in record numbers to caucus.  As David Dent notes in a recent post on the caucus, a majority of those new voters, were motivated by the GOP primary field’s negative rhetoric on immigration. Per PBS, “More than 10,000 Latinos caucused, up from roughly 1,000 eight years ago. And the group, The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, has Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration to thank. The overwhelming majority of Latinos caucused as Democrats, but it was that notorious Republican who motivated many of them to caucus at all.”

Turnout in Iowa shows that the Republican lurch to the right on immigration – embodied by Donald Trump, but embraced by the entire GOP field – is, in fact, helping to energize Latino voters. This is worrisome for the GOP, given the potential power of an energized Latino electorate in the 2016 general election. A recent report from Pew Research found that the number of eligible Latino voters is 40% higher in 2016 than it was in 2008. Given the increase in the number and share of Latino voters expected to vote in the 2016 general electorate, Latino Decisions estimates that the Republican nominee will need to win between 42-47% of Latinos to win the 2016 presidential popular vote.  It’s clear that the 2016 primary season has moved the Republican Party in the opposite direction from that target percentage.

Tramonte continued: “Not only is the GOP primary mobilizing Latinos in early states and nationwide, but the general electorate as a whole continues to support policies allowing undocumented immigrants to stay legally over deportation-focused approaches. If Republicans insist on keeping their heads in the sand on immigration and running on hardline policies, as Mitt Romney did in 2012, they will meet the same fate.”