Latino Views on the 2016 GOP Field: Who Can Actually Win the Latino Vote?

By Matt Barreto

As the field of possible GOP contenders for the White House start to take shape, it is important to assess what Latino voters think about the potential presidential candidates, if they even know who they are, and how they can possibly position themselves to court the Latino vote. There is no question that Republicans will lose the White House again in 2016 if they repeat the mistakes of Mitt "I would veto the Dream Act" Romney and lose three-quarters of the Latino vote. GOP Chairman Reince Preibus has said future Republican candidates "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," while former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the Washington Post: "It was such a clear two-by-four to the head in the 2012 election," referring to Mitt Romney's low share of the Hispanic vote and poor positioning on immigration, concluding that "Republicans could never win again if that's the status."

Have Republican presidential hopefuls changed and embraced a kinder, gentler approach to immigration reform and Latino outreach? Latino Decisions has been asking voters how much they know, and what they think about the possible candidates in 2016. Here we review the findings of recent polling on Latino attitudes towards the Republican field:

Let's start with an older look, from back in July 2013 before too much jostling had started. Latino Decisions asked favorability ratings on seven GOP contenders and the biggest take away was back then, Latino voters had very low levels of information about the GOP hopefuls. Among those who did give an informed answer, Chris Christie led the pack with a 38% favorable rating versus a 12% unfavorable rating. Christie likely benefited from being in the news in 2013 during his gubernatorial re-election contest in which he ran virtually unopposed. Still a whopping 50% of Latino registered voters nationwide said they had never heard of, or had no opinion of Chris Christie. Likewise, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez score a net positive approval with 25% favorable against 12% unfavorable, however she was the least known of all the names we tested with 63% giving no answer when prompted about Governor Martinez. Looking at Latino views towards the GOP field back in July 2013, none appeared to be runaway favorites to back inroads with the Latino vote in 2016. Jeb Bush 27% favorable, Rand Paul just 17% favorable. Even Marco Rubio stood at just 31% favorable.


More recently, we have re-tested favorability as well as specific questions on presidential vote intentions around many of the leading names on the GOP side. Here we assess how four possible candidates compared in July 2013 to November 2014. In the table below we present like data for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. In every instance, the candidates are more known in 2014 than in 2013, as evidenced by the percent of Latino respondents saying "don't know" or "never heard of" going down considerably in 2014. However, new news is not necessarily good news in this instance. While three of the four saw modest increases in their favorability ratings, all four saw noticeable increases in their unfavorability ratings. In fact, only Jeb Bush was a wash, adding 7% favorable and 7% unfavorable to his totals, still resulting in an overall net unfavorability of -12 points (34 fav to 46 unfav). The other three GOP names all experienced net decreases in their favorability as they became better known. Most notable was Ted Cruz, going from 20% unfavorable in 2013 to 39% unfavorable in 2014, almost doubling his unfavorables among Latino voters. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul also saw net shifts in the negative direction over the 2013 to 2014 polling. So whatever jostling these candidates were doing to raise their national profile, did not seem to have a positive effect on Latino voters.


Finally, we have asked a direct question about vote intention in 2016. In our October 2014 pre-election survey of Latinos we asked how likely, or unlikely voters would be to consider voting for five different candidates. We assessed Bush, Rubio, Cruz, Paul and Christie. In this instance, we gave voters some basic information about each possible GOP candidate, taken from direct quotes or their official websites, in terms of their publicly stated position on immigration reform {full question wording can be found here}. Further, we don't present any of the GOP possible candidates against a Democratic candidate. That is, we were most interested in gauging how Latino voters feel about the GOP candidates themselves, and had we pitted them against the likes of Hillary Clinton, we may have seen movement away from each GOP candidate that was more of pro-Clinton pull. Thus, we can interpret these findings as the absolute support that Latino voters give to five GOP presidential hopefuls, as opposed to their pure partisan vote intensity.

Overall, Latino voters rejected the five GOP contenders by roughly a 2-1 margin. Among the least favorable were Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Combining the very and somewhat likely results, we found 24% of Latino voters said they were likely to consider voting for Cruz and Paul in 2016 compared to over 70% who said they would not consider voting for each. Marco Rubio had the highest support at 35% likely to consider, but this left 59% unlikely and 6% undecided. Chris Christie, who had net favorables of +26 in 2013 (38 fav; 12 unfav) received only 33% support from Latinos, against 59% unlikely to support, and similarly Jeb Bush received 32% support versus 62% opposition.


Thus, as the 2016 GOP hopefuls currently stand, none seem to be a runaway favorite to redefine the GOP image vis-a-vis Latinos, as called upon by GOP leadership following the 2012 election. In the March 2013 report commissioned by the RNC, they wrote:

Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all." In Section 2 of their report titled "Hispanics" the GOP wrote: "If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn't want them in the United States, they won't pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn't matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party's position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.

We still have the better part of one year before the Iowa Caucuses and things can change, but it is very hard to imagine the potential GOP candidates moving towards a more moderate or pro-immigration reform position as they attempt to woo Republican primary voters. What exactly do they need to do? A Latino Decisions/ survey found that an overwhelming 89% of Latino voters supported the executive action for undocumented parents -- including 76% of Latino Republicans; and likewise 80% of Latino voters said they are opposed to efforts to block or defund the executive action. In direct contrast to Latino public opinion, recent efforts by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives point to a path consistent with the Mitt Romney approach. In December 2014 Republicans in the House voted to block Obama's 2014 executive action for undocumented parents. In January 2015 Republicans in the House voted to cancel all funding for Obama's executive action for undocumented parents. Others such as Ted Cruz have threatened to consider a government shutdown in an effort to block Obama's executive action for undocumented parents. There are now 26 states where Republican Attorneys General or Governors have signed on to a lawsuit attempting to stop the executive action for undocumented parents, and most recently Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced his party plans to sue Obama in an effort to stop the President's plan to protect undocumented parents from deportation. Despite their own warnings in a GOP published "honest review of the 2012 election cycle" the statements, votes and lawsuits promoted by Republicans run entirely counter to the advice they gave themselves.

Perhaps most interesting will be to follow and chart the public statements and policy platform of Jeb Bush. Some have suggested that Bush -- who skipped the recent Iowa event hosted by Rep. Steve King -- could provide an opportunity for the GOP to reinvent themselves with Latino voters. The data Latino Decisions has collected so far suggest Bush has not yet made any inroads with Latino voters. In Florida, he had been successful with winning the Latino vote, however the Florida Latino electorate is quite distinct from the national Latino electorate. Therefore, the next few months will be crucial for Bush and the entire 2016 field as the potential candidates give speeches, interviews and make policy statements. As the Republican National Committee report states clearly: "our Party's position on immigration has become a litmust test." They're right.