President Trump speaks at the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit in March 2018 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Data analyst and political columnist

Every few months, a strange thing happens in the news: President Trump says something negative about Hispanics and Latinos or makes a new push for his border wall. Someone then checks the polls and finds that his approval is well above zero percent with Hispanics and Latinos, and every journalist marvels that those numbers aren’t lower. Then, before we have time to fully examine why Trump’s numbers with these voters are where they are, some other event bursts into the news cycle like the Kool-Aid Man and we all move on without figuring out this seeming conundrum. A few months later, the pattern repeats.

We’re on the tail end of one of those loops right now. Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency in an effort to get the wall built prompted some to dive into his numbers among Hispanics. But other stories have started to crowd out wall news. Before the mystery of Hispanic and Latino support recedes from the news cycle again, I decided to comb through the existing data and research on these voters’ decision-making to try to figure out how many of them support Trump and get a sense of why they do.

The data suggests that Republicans have a substantial, semi-soft floor with Hispanic and Latino voters and that Trump has basically hit it. Moreover, this floor seems to built at least in part on identity and ideology, meaning that Democrats might not be able to eat into it by simply emphasizing immigration.

Finding the GOP’s floor

Trump often overstates his support among Hispanic and Latino voters — Democrats typically win the group by a wide margin, and Trump’s base among them isn’t huge. But it is there.

Recent YouGov, Quinnipiac and Post-ABC News polls put his approval rating among Hispanics at 27 percent, 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Those numbers average out to about 23 percent — that’s a substantial chunk, and it’s not so different from his 2016 vote share. According to demographers Ruy Teixeira, Rob Griffin and John Halpin, Trump won 29 percent of the Latino vote against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

That roughly 25-30 percent of figure shows up elsewhere in the data. Mitt Romney won about 30 percent of Latinos in 2012. Catalist, a Democratic firm, calculated that House Republicans lost the Latino vote by a 42-point margin in 2018 — which is similar to Clinton’s 47-point margin. Exit polls (which have their flaws) said that John McCain won 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008. Republicans did somewhat better with Hispanics in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, and there have been some nerd fights over how well George W. Bush performed with Hispanics and Latinos in 2004. But in recent, high-turnout elections, Republicans seem to have hit some sort of floor around a quarter or a third of the Latino and Hispanic vote.

Why the floor is where it is

There’s one obvious reason that the Hispanic and Latino vote splits up and isn’t monolithic: Hispanic and Latino voters aren’t one identity homogeneous group. As with every other large racial and ethnic category (white, black, Asian), there’s a lot of internal diversity when you look under the hood.

Hispanic and Latino Americans, like Asian Americans, don’t all come from one place. Most originally come from Mexico, but a solid number come from Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere in Central and South America. And voting patterns vary across these groups. Cubans, for example, are a key voting group in Florida, and they tend to be more Republican than other Latino populations. There are real generational divides: Self-identified Hispanics who are third-generation or higher are more likely than others to self-describe primarily as American rather than Hispanic/Latino, less likely to say they have felt discriminated against because of their background and feel less connected to their country of origin. Hispanics live in a wide variety of areas, and there’s some evidence that rural Hispanics moved a bit toward Trump in 2016. Evangelical Protestant Hispanics are more Republican than mainline Protestant, Catholic or religiously unaffiliated Hispanics. There’s a gender gap in Hispanic voting, too. Democrats won both Hispanic men and women in 2018, but Hispanic men were more likely to vote for Republicans than women were.

It’s true that most Hispanic and Latino voters are Democrats, but some of the same political beliefs and identities that motivate non-Hispanics and non-Latinos to become Republicans, including religion, gender and partisanship also influence Latinos and Hispanics. Roughly 30 percent of them are a consistent Republican base.

Immigration alone doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet for winning Hispanic and Latino votes. Before Trump entered the national political scene, Pew found that only 34 percent of Hispanic registered voters said immigration was “extremely important” to them personally. And in 2017, 46 percent of Latinos rated “dealing with the issue of immigration” as a top priority for Trump and the new Congress. Education, the economy, health care and other issues were more important to Latinos than immigration in both of these surveys. Even in times like these, when the parties are clearly divided by immigration, about 28 percent of Hispanic registered voters either lean toward the GOP or identify as Republicans. And as my former colleague Sean Trende showed in his great work on this subject, some Hispanics even hold hawkish views on immigration.

Republicans probably haven’t helped themselves with Latinos by taking a highly restrictionist position on immigration. Even more importantly, the perception that the party tolerates racist politicians, including Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), is a major obstacle to the party courting these voters. Many Hispanic and Latino voters do care about immigration, and Republicans could probably improve their approach by cooling down the rhetoric, trying to target their populist appeals in ways that explicitly help Hispanics and Latinos and thinking up an immigration policy that doesn’t involve pursuing a border wall at all costs. There’s a reason that Republicans often lose this group by 30 to 40 points.

But it is worth noting that Trump, the loudest immigration restrictionist the GOP has run in the modern era, hit the same floor as other Republicans. I’m not the first person to notice this, but it’s a key detail. It suggests that a conservative position on immigration isn’t radioactive to every Hispanic or Latino voter. Democrats who dream of locking up 90 percent of the Latino and Hispanic vote, turning them into a base comparable to African American voters, need to get over the idea that they can win that base just by emphasizing immigration.

To 2020 and beyond

Democrats might be able to push down the GOP’s floor over time, wait for progressive young Hispanics and Latinos to become more regular voters and eventually win by even greater margins than they’re winning now. Republicans might even help them do that by doubling down on harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric over the next few cycles.

That’s also not how the future has to unfold. Maybe over time, the meaning of the “Hispanic” and “Asian” labels will change as they did for many Irish, Italian and other voters and Republicans will gain more voters over time. Nate Cohn has pointed out that increasing numbers of Hispanics are identifying as white — suggesting that “Hispanic” (like most racial and ethnic categories in the United States) doesn’t have a fixed meaning. And maybe Hispanic and Latino identity will change in a way that lets Republicans eat into that 40-point Democratic margin. It’s too early to know what will happen — wonks on the right and left have been debating these points for years — but it’s not clear that Democrats will be able to effortlessly ride the growth of the Hispanic and Latino populations into an invincible majority.

As with lots of things Trump says, his insistence that “Hispanics love me” is overblown. Democrats still crush Republicans among nonwhite voters, and that’s a real problem for the GOP. But the president’s critics shouldn’t ignore Trump’s nonwhite support. Instead, Trump’s standing with Hispanic and Latino voters ought to deliver a sharp wake-up call to Democratic strategists. If a president who makes a border wall his signature and who demonizes immigrants from Latin American countries can still hold on to 30 percent of the voters most likely to be harmed by this rhetoric, Democrats are going to have to work harder to turn Hispanic and Latino voters into the base of their dreams.

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