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The Ass and His Purchaser: Donald Trump, The GOP, and the Latino Vote

The Aesop Fable, The Ass and His Purchaser, tells the story of a farmer who wished to purchase a donkey:

The farmer decided to give the animal a test before buying him. He took the donkey home, put him in the field with his other donkeys and soon enough the new ass strayed to join the one that was the laziest and the biggest eater of them all. Seeing this, the farmer led him back to his owner and told the man “I didn’t even need to see how he worked. I knew he would be just like the one he chose to be his friend.”

Aesop’s moral: A man is known by the company he keeps.

So shall what goes for people also go for political parties?

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Last week, Senator John McCain said that business magnate, turned reality TV star, turned Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had “fired up the crazies,” at a rally in Arizona via a speech filled to the brim with anti- immigrant rhetoric. He is just one man among many in the GOP who are trying desperately to dissociate ‘The Donald’ from the party—Trump this past weekend in Iowa riposted with insults about the Arizona senior senator’s past performance in school (McCain finished last in his class at Annapolis), calling him a “dummy.” But as has become national news, Trump went further by then questioning the merits of John McCain’s military service. “He is a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said. “I like people that weren’t captured, O.K.? I hate to tell you.”

His campaign has been bipartisanly treated like a dog and pony show, but from Trump’s vantage point, those in the mainstream are the asses. “Let’s Trump the Establishment! We are no longer silent. We will Make America Great Again!” he tweeted before a trip to the US-Mexico border, Thursday.

Obviously, Trump’s no holds barred style is risky business. The disparaging McCain comment is only the latest corkscrew in the rollercoaster of controversies that has cost Trump a host of political allies and business partnerships. Univision, NBC, Wal-Mart and a whole host of other companies have cut ties; 9 in total, plus the City of New York. Everyday there is a new think piece trying to contextualize the Trump show’s latest antics; yet none of it will put a dent in his finances, and up to this point it hasn’t cost him popularity on the right.

Still, info trickling in as the McCain jabs begin to bake into his numbers hint that Trump may have now pushed his luck. The Washington Post reported that, despite a new poll which shows Trump ahead at 24% (nearly twice the support of the nearest candidate), “support for Trump fell sharply on the one night that voters were surveyed following those comments. Telephone interviewing for the poll began Thursday, and most calls were completed before the news about the remarks was widely reported.” It will take the next round of polls to know where Trump stands after the fallout.

His GOP competitors pounced in the immediate wake with a wave of condemnation tweets from their campaign accounts—along with the pundit class in both parties. Senator Rubio said it disqualifies him for the nomination. Respect for vets is venerated, sacred, especially in the parlance of the Republican Party. We can anticipate that Trump will be grilled for his comments on the GOP debate stage in early August as the fractured party unites with him as the common enemy.

The nation’s political class has been categorically blindsided by Trump. Nobody knows what to make of him, how exactly to cover his campaign (The Huffington Post has decided to cover Trump in their entertainment section), how much longer Trump mania will go on, or how to make sense of it all without finding their reporting suspended somewhere between satirical snickering and disbelieving snark.

Meanwhile, Trump has threatened to launch an independent run if the establishment is “not fair.” “I’ll have to see how I’m being treated by the Republicans,” Trump told The Hill. “The RNC has not been supportive. They were always supportive when I was a contributor. I was their fair-haired boy . . . The RNC has been, I think, very foolish.” As a man who seems to be given more life when embattled, Trump won’t go down easy.

On the eve of Donald Trump’s announcement for president FiveThirtyEight reported “a whopping 57 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump,” concluding that Donald Trump “isn’t a real candidate.” Harry Enten explained the calculus: “His unfavorable rating . . . is by far the worst [performing] of the 106 presidential candidates since 1980 who are in our database.”

But that was on the eve of Trump’s announcement. Nobody, not even data journalist Nate Silver—founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, reknowned for having perfectly predicted the 2012 election results—could have anticipated the comments about migrants Trump would make during his announcement nor predicted that following the racially-charged boister his favorability rating would do a perfect 180. Exactly a month after FiveThirtyEight’s post, The Washington Post reported: 

Donald Trump’s popularity has surged among Republicans after dominating several news cycles with his anti-illegal immigration rhetoric, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly six in 10 — 57 percent — Republicans now have a favorable view of Trump.

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President Obama during his last appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart: “I’m sure the Republicans are enjoying Mr. Trump’s current dominance as the front-runner,” Obama said wryly. “Anything that makes them look less crazy,” Stewart barbed.

Exactly how much damage Trump’s McCain comments have done to his standing with voters will be answered soon enough. Voters aside, the Republican candidates (with the exception of Sen. Cruz, who seems to be angling to step in as a poor man’s Trump) are now unified in their battle to push Trump out of the picture, to “try to pull the plug on his bloviating sideshow,” as The Des Moines Register put it.

More critical though is another nagging reality Republicans will have even once Trump is gone, more systemic than Trump’s renegade campaign: two diametrically opposed incentive systems within the Republican Party’s election strategy that are causing a dichotomy in both messaging and policy. The anti-immigrant side of the split runs the risk of scaring racially tolerant middle-class voters and Latino voters (a voting bloc Trump has hilariously said he will win) away for good.

When the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group, La Raza, invited every presidential candidate to its annual convention, 3 Democratic contenders showed, but according to a spokesman, not one of the Republicans candidates even planned to attend. Though, La Raza members were probably unsurprised at not hearing back from Donald Trump, who has ridden a gust of racialized xenophobia to the precipice of the GOP primary polls.

Kansas City, which has experienced a swell of Latino immigrants who have reversed a 15 year population decline, hosted the La Raza conference. Kansas City Mayor Mark Holland told The Washington Post: “What Trump has done is pull back the thin veil of racism underlying the immigration debate.” Against the backdrop of an increasingly socially tolerant general populace and a politically correct (if not racially coded) mainstream media there has been a jump to both literally and figuratively turn Trump into a piñata.

Universally, unofficially recognized by political analysts and lay citizens alike as the party of Old White People (OWP), the GOP knows it has a demographic problem that is as real as it is perceived. And so the rebukes of Trump include those Republicans closer to the center (and to sanity) who worry he will ruin their already lackluster brand in communities of color. Fellow GOP presidential candidate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said Trump has talked about immigration “in a way that’s going to kill [the] party.” Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, he denounced Trump as “a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party in the Hispanic community” and urged Republicans, “We need to push back . . . to reject this demagoguery. If we don’t, we will lose, and we will deserve to lose.”

McCain, speaking with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, weighed in to back Graham, “Lindsey said this is a moral test for our party. ” McCain said, “Of course, Lindsey was one of the eight of us who negotiated immigration reform. Lindsey never backed away from it.”

Referring to Trump, Graham blazoned, “I think he’s created a defining moment for all candidates.” But as Trump has pointed out, Graham trails him by 24 points at 0%.

The whole conversation surrounding Trump has to be tempered and premised with an acknowledgement that in the end, barring a series of highly unlikely events, he will not win the Latino vote nor be the GOP nominee in the first place. Donald Trump is an ass, deserves to be called one, and the likes of Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, and other prominent liberals in news media have been having plenty of fun doing so.

Still, the value in exploring why he is polling well is not about Trump. It’s about what Trump’s rise says about the Republican Party as a community—who they keep company, and whether Latino voters in 2016 will want to associate themselves with a party that—with or without the graces of its top brass—has vast elements who defend the inaccurate and dehumanizing insults of a brazen bigot who has launched into first place in primary polling after making those bigoted comments. Trump’s candidacy is a manifestation of a larger existential crisis within the GOP.

For the party’s nominee to lose the Hispanic vote by a margin comparable to the 71 to 27 shellacking Romney experienced in 2012 would all but guarantee the Democrats another four-year lease on the White House. So with Donald Trump leading the polls, it is not good news when Huffington Post’s LatinoVoices publishes an article entitled ‘Latino Voters Dislike Donald Trump Even More Than Mitt Romney, Poll Shows.’ The referenced poll, conducted by Univision, shows only 16% percent of Latinos would vote for Trump, and 71% had an unfavorable view of him. However, there was a sign of hope for the Republican Party. Roque Planas writes:

While Trump’s comments appear to have turned Hispanic voters against him, there’s a silver lining for the Republican Party. Some 61 percent of respondents said they thought his comments reflected his views alone rather than those of the GOP more generally. Only 14 percent said the comments reflected the views of the Republican Party. Another 18 percent said Trump’s comments represented the views of both the candidate and the party.

The news that Hispanics haven’t attributed Trump’s views to the party as a whole is potentially life-saving news for Republicans. They should pray the dichotomy remains. When asked by Univision to identify themselves by party affiliation, just 16 percent of Hispanic voters describe themselves as Republicans, compared with 58 percent who identify as Democrats and 26 percent who say they are independent. A slight majority say they have an unfavorable impression of the Republican Party. Roughly 2 in 3 Hispanics say they have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party. In spite of poor polling results like these Republicans have simply not reacted to startling stats like nine out of every 10 people who voted for Mitt Romney were white with the urgency or even panic a political observer might expect.

There’s a reason: a discord between what is necessary for the party’s continued competitiveness in national elections and what is politically expedient and safe in state and/or US congressional elections.

As both pollsters and professors project, the Republicans may be erecting a series of walls that fences them in—in the company of their shrinking base. Hispanics voted overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. Obama and are due to be a third of Americans by mid-century, according to Pew.

Nonetheless, those impending national shifts don’t mean much for current locally-elected US congressmen. John J. Pitney of Politico wrote insightfully how “most House Republicans represent districts with few Hispanic voters, so they feel little pressure to adopt a more lenient approach [to immigration reform, etc.]. Some commentators argue that the issue will hurt the party in the long term, but GOP incumbents are unwilling to anger their base voters today to help other Republicans win seats in the distant future.”

The problem is that Bush-Obama Counties (swing counties that went Bush in ‘00 & ‘04 then Obama in ‘08 & ‘12) like Merced County in California, Hidalgo and Valencia counties in New Mexico, and Val Verde and Kleberg counties in Texas, which the American University American Communities project defines as Hispanic Centers Communities suggests some of those seats, which Republicans haven’t managed to jerrymander out of contention, may be in danger a bit sooner than the distant future.

And as for the 2016 presidential election—the relevance of the Hispanic vote is very immediate and of deep consequence. Trump’s comments and the support they’ve enjoyed may not make the party look any more inviting to Latinos—as well as moderate white Americans in solidarity with them—ahead of 2016.

Whether or not Republicans actually care for more moderates, they have to maintain some semblance of subtlety and finesse in order to be properly postured to win over ‘Bush-Obama’ type voters in bellwether swing counties and finicky swing states. Trump appears at times to be the antithesis of finesse. Though many Bush-Obama counties are monolithically white there are a whole host of others that saw a shift from red to blue or purple in large part because of a liberal and politically active, growing Latino community.

There’s no way on earth Trump will be the GOP nominee, but the longer he is relevant the more damage he is primed to do to the Republican brand. And the more attention he takes from more viable general election candidates like Bush, Walker, and Rubio—who despite doing well against presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in head-to-head match-ups in specific swing states—still trail Hillary among Latino voters. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio dangerously trail Clinton by margins similar to Mitt Romney’s loss of this voting bloc in 2012, according to the aforementioned Univision poll.

Sen. Marco Rubio is viewed positively by 35 percent of Hispanics and negatively by 34 percent. Former governor Jeb Bush is 36 percent favorable but 45 percent unfavorable. And despite the surface-level ‘in’ Jeb Bush may apparently have due to family ties, or that Marco Rubio may seem to have because of his own background, there is a nagging reality that Hispanics identify as Democrats rather than Republicans 45 to 15.

That Trump’s harsh generalizations of Hispanic migrants are tolerable to some in the Republican party, while his bashing a veteran was universally considered blasphemy alone, implicitly suggests a disparate respect for Latino-Americans compared to other groups. And it could backfire into a bigger Latino turnout, says GOP consultant Mike Madrid, an expert on Latino voters, “All my research has shown that the only time that Latino turnout has exceeded expectations is when we have a negative force, when the community is under attack. The sleeping giant awakes when he has a nightmare.”

The farmer in Aesop’s fable, on being asked how, in so short a time, he could have tested whether the donkey was worth the purchase answered that he did not need a trial; he knew that the ass would be similar to the one he chose to be his companion. Donald Trump may not be friends with any of his competitors for the Republican nomination, but he is in the same party for now. So thanks to Mr. Trump, no matter how long his campaign stint lasts, the GOP may not be able to cover its ass—and the record 28 million Latinos who will be eligible to vote in 2016 might not buy what Republicans are selling, once again.

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About Author: Talmon Smith

Talmon Joseph Smith is a Huffington Post contributor and a recent graduate of Tufts University where he studied History and Film. He is a Fellow at Tufts’ Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a Harvard Institute of Politics National Campaign Ambassador. He has worked as a writer and researcher at Issue One, a nonpartisan campaign finance think tank and was a speaker at President Obama’s dedication ceremony of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. He's also a senior writing coach at Write for the Future and a graduate teaching assistant for Professor Dent at the NYU Arthur Carter Journalism Institute.

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