Donald Trump is surging. In a field that has grown to 16 Republican presidential candidates (once Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich make their candidacies official), Trump is now in second place pretty much wherever you look. A new Quinnipiac poll of Iowa voters shows him tied for second with Ben Carson; they each have 10 percent to Walker’s 18. The latest CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire also puts Trump in second, with 11 percent, behind only Jeb Bush at 16 percent. And in the Huffington Post Pollster average of national polls, Trump comes in a mere 0.7 percent behind Bush.
While everyone has treated the Trump story as an amusing sideshow to the campaign (which it certainly is), there’s a genuine danger for the GOP in his presence that goes beyond the simple fact that he makes the party look silly (which he certainly does). More than any other candidate, Trump is telling Latinos that the Republican Party doesn’t like them.
Now let’s be clear: It isn’t as though Trump is going to be a serious contender for the nomination. But he could also go significantly higher than he is now. Just think about what happened in 2012, when one ridiculous candidate after another shot to the front of the Republican primary race. At one point, Rick Perry was in the lead with 32 percent support. Herman Cain once led with 26 percent. Newt Gingrich topped the field with 35 percent. Rick Santorum was No. 1 with 34 percent. The 2016 race may or may not be that volatile, but it will certainly have some ups and downs, as one candidate or another will stumble and another will rise. So it’s not inconceivable that at some point, for a moment anyway, Trump might actually be ahead in the polls.
When the primaries are over, repairing relations with Latinos will be one of the central challenges the Republican nominee faces. It’s one that both John McCain and Mitt Romney failed to accomplish — McCain lost among Latinos by a margin of 36 points, while Romney trailed by 44. And every time Trump opens his mouth, he makes that task more difficult.
Of course, Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio don’t bear responsibility for the things Trump says. But Latinos are paying attention to what he’s saying, and it can’t help but taint his fellow Republicans. As you might recall, in his announcement speech, Trump basically called every Mexican immigrant in the United States a low-life. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” In response, Univision pulled out of broadcasting the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump co-owns, and NBC dropped him as well. In Mexico, people are making Trump piñatas.
Given the chance to clarify, Trump said in essence that there are perfectly fine people in Mexico, it’s just the ones who come to the United States who are so awful, and also that these dangerous criminals come from other countries, too. “I’m not just saying Mexicans, I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they’re coming into this country,” he said. So it’s really all immigrants that he has a problem with. Good to have that cleared up.
That kind of rhetoric coming from a prominent Republican candidate (who will almost certainly be included in the upcoming debates, by the way) makes it all the more difficult for the party to strike the tricky balance it needs to on the issue of immigration. The nominee will have to make the case for the policies he and every other Republican favors — increased border security above all, and nothing more than the far-distant possibility of a path to some vaguely defined legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States — without communicating hostility toward immigrants in general, and through them to all Latinos (and to a lesser but still significant extent, to Asian Americans).
Even if all Republicans were acting welcoming and inclusive, it would be hard enough. Those voters are paying attention to the policy positions the candidates take, which means that any Republican, even one with Cuban parents (like Rubio) or one who speaks Spanish fluently and has a Mexican spouse (as Bush does), starts with two strikes against him. Trump may be a comical buffoon who stands almost no chance of getting the nomination, but by the time he’s done, the bile he spews could get his fellow Republicans dirty as well.