The human wrecking ball known as Donald Trump is promising his supporters he’ll blow up the traditional electoral map in November and win states where Republicans haven’t competed in 25 years. California! New York! Pennsylvania! Ohio, you’re really a swing state, but he’s looking at you, too!
But as Trump plots his march into Blue State America by appealing to white men with no college education, he is simultaneously risking the end the Republican Party’s vise grip on western red states, where rapidly growing Latino voting populations could reject the GOP because of Trump's nativist bombast.
“Trump may eventually be our proof that politics, like life, really is a zero-sum game because as he’s gaining white voters, he’s losing Hispanic and Asian voters,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato’s view is that while Trump may have made Pennsylvania and Ohio more competitive for Republicans, he has also made Arizona more competitive for Democrats and even put Colorado and Nevada entirely out of reach.
“Trump’s base supporters will be with him under any conditions, but that’s not nearly enough to win,” he said. “If you turn off minority voters enough, they’re going to turn out for one reason—to vote against you.”
The last time a Republican won the White House, the west was a crucial building block to victory. In 2000, George W. Bush won a swath of states from Nevada to Colorado, Arizona and Texas on his way to a razor thin victory over Al Gore. The only state southwestern state he lost was New Mexico, where he came up short to Al Gore by less than one-tenth of one percent.
Bush’s success in the southwest in came largely thanks to his support among Latino voters concentrated in those states. Nationally, Bush won 35% of the Hispanic vote. Four years later, Bush expanded his margin among Latinos to 41% and carried the West even more decisively.
But as the number of Latinos eligible to vote more than doubled, from 13.2 million in 2000 to an expected 27.3 million in 2016, Hispanic voters have increasingly trended toward Democrats at the national level. This year, Republicans are openly worried that Donald Trump could finish the job and do to the Latino population what Barry Goldwater did to African Americans—alienate an entire generation of minority voters from the GOP and lose the White House in the process.
When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell if he worries Trump will have a “Goldwater” effect among Hispanic voters, McConnell said, “I do. I do.”
McConnell singled out Trump's attack last week on Susana Martinez, the Republican governor of New Mexico, as "a big mistake." Left unsaid by McConnell were the repeated attacks from Trump on the Latino judge overseeing the class action fraud lawsuit against Trump University, whom Trump has repeatedly accused of being biased against him because the Indiana-born judge is “Mexican.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said Curiel has “an inherent conflict of interest” because of Trump’s plans to build a wall on the U.S. Mexico border.
Last week, RNC’s head of Hispanic media outreach quit her job, telling close associates she was uncomfortable working for Trump. Her replacement, announced quickly after her impending departure was revealed, also has a history of criticizing Trump.
The latest Latino Decisions survey found Trump’s net favorability among Latinos to be -78 percent, while Hillary Clinton’s is +29 percent. A recent Fox News poll found Trump faring better, equally Mitt Romney's performance with 27% of Latinos.
But pollsters say Trump needs to be at 30% to 33% to stay competitive, especially in southwestern states that carried George Bush to victory in 2000, including Nevada, where 27% of eligible voters will be Latino in 2016, Arizona, where Hispanics will make up 30% of eligible voters, and Colorado, where at least 20% of the voting-eligible population will be Hispanic.
If Trump loses the southwestern states Bush won, he'll have to make those numbers up by taking states Obama won in 2008 or 2012, a hurdle that Trump himself is making higher every day.
“Even New Mexico should be competitive for a conservative, but you have to have the right conservative to compete there,” said Lonna Atkeson, the director of Director of the Center for the study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, where Latinos make up about 46% of the state’s population and about a quarter of the electorate. “Is Trump the right conservative? He doesn’t seem to be the right conservative if he is trashing the minority voters that he needs to get. That’s a problem for him.”
The key to Trump's performance, in the Southwest especially, will be registration and turnout among Latinos, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
“Let’s go back to 2012 when the Hispanic turnout rate was 43% and the turnout rate for non-Hispanic whites was 62%,” McDonald said. “If states are going to flip or become battlegrounds, it would most likely come as a result of a major shift in turnout. It’s an unknown if Hispanics are going to turn out in higher rates. We’re in unchartered territory.”
To that end, Democrats are investing heavily in efforts to register and turn out minorities in battleground states. George Soros and other major funders will spend $15 million on Latino turnout in the fall. Unions and state-level Democrats are expected to follow suit.
McDonald, Acheson and Sabato all returned again and again to the sheer volatility of the race and Trump’s role in it as the defining feature of the 2016 race, even ahead of demographic trends and slices and shares of the electorate.
At his rally in San Jose, Cali., this week, Trump slowed his roll, just for a minute, to read a sign in the crowd. "Latinos for Trump! That's what I like. I love that," he said. "The Hispanics! We love the Hispanics!” If the protests outside of the rally were any indication, it's not clear the feeling is mutual.