The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Jeb Bush could be the GOP’s key to the Latino vote

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, talks with fellow candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush during a commercial break at the first official  debate of the 2016 campaign in Cleveland on Aug. 6. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Placeholder while article actions load

Back in 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent. He lost Hispanics by a notorious margin, 71-27.

All of which makes Jeb Bush's numbers in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll fascinating. That's because the former Florida governor is actually doing better among Hispanics than among whites (albeit within the margin of error).

This is both because Bush does worse than your average Republican among whites and notably better among Hispanics. While 39 percent of whites report a positive impression of him, that number is 43 percent for Hispanics. It's almost unthinkable that a national GOP figure would face such a dichotomy these days.

A few things are at work here:

1) Bush is struggling among conservative voters — who tilt more white than the overall electorate — and has seen his presidential poll numbers suffer as a result. In fact, just 6 percent of whites view Bush in a "strongly" favorable light. That's less even than Hillary Rodham Clinton (13 percent), whose party relies far less on white voters.


2) His pragmatism on the issue of immigration reform — and perhaps his Mexican American family and his brother's success among this demographic and work on comprehensive immigration reform — appear to be buoying his numbers among a fast-growing group that Republicans would dearly love to appeal to and need to do better with than they did in 2012.

Bush's favorable rating among Hispanics is remarkably similar to George W. Bush's showing among Hispanics in the 2004 exit polls — 44 percent. And that's even as some have suggested that 44 percent figure was somewhat inflated. If Jeb Bush were to execute such appeal among Latinos as the GOP nominee, the Republican Party would face much better odds of winning back the presidency. (Bush is even viewed favorably by 28 percent of African Americans — another remarkable number for a modern Republican.)

Of course, that's a big if. Bush is struggling in GOP primary polls in large part because of No. 1 above. Unless he can appeal to white voters — who remain the vast majority of Republican primary voters — his party will not be able to reap the benefits of his cross-racial appeal in the general election. Bush is clearly damaged goods among Republican base voters — including a 50 percent unfavorable rating among likely GOP caucus-goers in Iowa, according to a poll released over the weekend — and his path to the nomination appears to be surprisingly imperiled at this very early stage.

Trump, of course has the opposite problem: His controversial comments about illegal Mexican immigrants have turned him into a pariah among Hispanics, 82 percent of whom view him unfavorably (68 percent strongly so). Among whites, though, Trump is more popular than Bush, with 48 percent viewing him positively.

Thus far, Bush and Trump are presenting their party with two distinct paths — a cerebral, proven-commodity governor with a famous name and potential crossover appeal in the general election and a boisterous businessman with no political experience who today would likely underperform even Romney among Hispanics

So far, the party is going with option No. 2.