President Donald Trump’s new favorite talking point is a claim that his recent crusade for a southern border wall, which draws furious accusations of xenophobia and racism, has made him more likable to Hispanics.
“When you look at the Hispanic polls, I’m up 19 percent,” Trump said at the White House last week. “And the reason I’m up 19 percent … I think it’s the fact that they understand, better than anybody, what’s going on at the border.”
It was at least the third time Trump has publicly referenced the surprising number, including in a Jan. 27 tweet in which he argued his monthlong standoff with Congress was a political success. It appears to come from an NPR/Marist poll that shows his approval rating among Hispanics soaring from 31 percent in December to 50 percent this month.
“It’s an astonishing number,” Fox News host Pete Hegseth told viewers days after the Jan. 17 poll was released.
But veteran pollsters who spoke with POLITICO called the number suspect, citing issues with the poll’s sample size and methodology. Broader polling data show little sign that Trump’s standing with Hispanics is on the rise.
To the consternation of Democrats, however, it doesn’t seem to be falling, either. Trump’s dire rhetoric about immigration seems to have done little damage to his modest — but not insignificant — support among Hispanics.
Trump’s support among Latinos and Hispanics in three other polls taken in January — 18 percent in a ABC/Washington Post survey, 30 percent in a The Economist/YouGov one, and 35 percent in poll from Quinnipiac University — produced an average of 27.6 percent.
That roughly matches the 29 percent of the Hispanic vote Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election, an improvement of two percentage points over Mitt Romney’s performance with those voters four years earlier.
Any significant shift in Trump’s support among Hispanic voters could have a decisive effect on his 2020 reelection prospects. For instance, in 2016 Trump carried Florida — where about 1 in 6 voters is Hispanic — by just over 1 percentage point.
POLITICO/Morning Consult polling over the past two months also suggests the border wall-fueled shutdown had little effect on Trump’s approval rating among Hispanic voters. In the three weeks leading up to the shutdown, Trump’s approval rating among Hispanics stood at 30 percent. That ticked down to 28 percent in the three polls so far in January — statistically unchanged from the preshutdown surveys.
“Generally, Trump is probably around 25% approval among Latinos right now nationally, based on the decrease in his poll standings after the shutdown,” Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions, wrote in an email to POLITICO.
That a president who tweeted in November that “Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries” retains the approval of nearly one-quarter of U.S. Hispanics is a source of worry for some Democrats who fear their party isn’t doing enough to court Hispanic voters on the fence about the president.
“My problem is I’m always sounding the alarm and they’re wanting to shoot the messenger,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster and president of the consulting firm Bendixen and Amandi.
Amandi warned Florida Democrats they were in danger of losing the governor’s mansion last fall because of their lackluster outreach to minority communities. Former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis won the governorship in November.
“A lot of people are claiming this border wall thing is a distraction in trying to attract minority support [for Trump], but the data shows the opposite is true,” a pollster for the president’s reelection campaign said. “The only way I could see someone saying, ‘I’m surprised he’s doing well with the Latino community,’ is if they thought the only thing Latinos care about is immigration and that Latinos believe Donald Trump is racist.”
The Trump pollster and Amandi both said a strong economy has helped sustain Trump’s backing among some Hispanics. Federal labor statistics show Hispanic unemployment to be at a historic low.
Trump’s actions on issues like religious liberty and abortion have also won praise among socially conservative Hispanics, many of whom are Catholic. And Trump argues that he appeals to a law-and-order instinct among some Hispanics.
Amandi called the economy “single-handedly the most important issue” for Hispanic voters, while adding: “There’s also a reactionary segment of the Hispanic electorate who is aligned with some of the Trump administration’s thinking on immigration and on some social issues.”
The NPR/Marist poll that has drawn Trump’s admiration was released midway through the partial government shutdown caused by Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding and congressional Democrats’ refusal to grant it. It was also conducted a few months after a midterm elections campaign in which Trump was widely accused of demonizing migrant caravans trying to enter the U.S. from Central America.
Pollsters attribute Trump’s unexpected uptick in the NPR/Marist poll to the poll’s sample size and methodology. The poll included responses from 1,023 U.S. adults, 154 of whom identified as Latino — “too few to yield accurate representation,” as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists puts it. The poll also had an unusually large margin of error: 9.9 percentage points.
“More than small sample size, their poll did not attempt to get a balanced and representative sample of Latinos,” said Barreto, who noted that the survey included few if any Spanish-language interviews.
Marist poll director Lee Miringoff said of his group’s poll on a podcast last week: “This is not a survey of the Latino population. This is a survey of Americans, of which that is a subgroup. Statistically, there is a difference [from last month] that we’re measuring, but numerically it may or may not be as great as the president would indicate.”
A sudden and substantial swing in support for Trump isn’t unique to the NPR/Marist poll. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said it’s something he sees often in his own organization’s national polls, and that a sharp uptick or decline among certain subgroups is most often the result of a narrow sample.
The partisan tendency to cherry-pick results is one of the reasons why Monmouth and other well-known polling institutions avoid releasing information on subgroups that are interviewed or decline to indicate sample size. For example, neither Quinnipiac University or ABC News and The Washington Post indicated the sample size of Hispanic participants in their polls released this month, just the broad national sample upon which the results were based. Furthermore, the gaps between results underscore the difficulty pollsters have in accurately representing Latino and Hispanic sentiments.
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"The problem is that estimates from small survey subsamples have large margins of error, so the risks of outliers are even greater," John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University, said. "Just as you shouldn’t focus on any one poll’s estimate of Trump’s overall approval rating, you certainly shouldn’t cherry-pick one poll’s estimate of his approval rating among Latinos."
Two sources close to Trump’s reelection effort said that it is unlikely to expend major resources trying to expand his share of the Hispanic vote.
On the flip side, Democrats will be working hard to drive Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote below its 2016 level, hoping to win back Florida and other states he narrowly carried that year.
The 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will “have to make a real targeted effort for certain racial and ethnic groups in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Florida” to prevent Trump from securing a second term, the pollster involved in the campaign said.
Steven Shepard contributed to this report.