MARSHALLTOWN, IA -- For a party that has grappled for years with how to court Latino voters, it was a striking image. Donald Trump, currently the most vilified politician in Hispanic media, standing alongside Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who held the title of chief bogeyman before him.
“This is a man, when we talk about borders, this is a man that believes in borders and getting his endorsement means a lot to me,” Trump said.
Like most Trump stories, it was hard to keep sustained attention on it for long before another shiny object appeared. In this case it was the Trump campaign’s announcement that he would not participate in the FOX News debate on Thursday in Iowa, just days before the Feb. 1 caucus, over an ongoing spat with host Megyn Kelly. But it’s worth pulling back and considering just how jarring the Trump and Arpaio alliance is given where the party was just three years ago.
When Republican leaders called for a renewed outreach effort to immigrant and minority voters after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, Arpaio was exactly the kind of figure they hoped to leave behind. Described as “possibly the most hated man in the Hispanic community” by Unvision anchor Jorge Ramos, Arpaio’s harsh crackdown on illegal immigration made him a conservative celebrity. It also prompted the Justice Department to sue his office over allegations it racially profiled Latino drivers and workers. In his spare time, Arpaio launched a quixotic investigation to determine if President Obama was born in Kenya, and not his actual birthplace of Hawaii.
Those stances made him increasingly radioactive to GOP leaders in the Obama era, but they’re a perfect match with Trump, who has championed birther conspiracy theories and is running on a campaign pledge to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants while freezing legal immigration levels and building a wall along the border.
“It’s just easy to endorse him, because everything I believe in he’s doing and he’s going to do it when he become president,” Arpaio told reporters at a press conference with Trump before his event.
Arpaio then stood silently as Trump devoted several minutes to his latest cause: Declaring that Senator Ted Cruz was likely disqualified from running for the White House due to being born in Canada.
“I question Ted Cruz, I mean, you know, I question it very strongly.” Trump said. “I mean I don’t even think, you know, based on things that I've learned over the last few days, many lawyers are coming out saying he doesn’t even have a right to run.”
Written off by many in the party as a stunt candidate for months, Trump is now leading polls in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. In national polls, he leads by an average of 17 points. Republican critics are increasingly resigned to the reality that Trump is the obvious frontrunner with time running out to stop him.
But the primary is its own universe. Over a quarter of Marshalltown’s population is Hispanic, and dozens of protesters circled the venue with signs including “Trump Makes America Hate Again.” A small group made it into Trump’s event and interrupted him with Spanish slogans before being escorted outside by security. Polls show Trump is uniquely loathed within the Latino community – by far more than any other candidate.
The same demographic trends that helped carry Obama over Mitt Romney while securing sweeping margins with Latino and Asian voters are still in effect. In fact, they’re accelerating. The number of Latino eligible voters is expected to grow to 27.3 million by November 2016 from 23.3 million in 2012.
Advocacy groups see the prospect of a Trump presidency as a turnout boon and are working hard to encourage permanent residents to naturalize before the election so they can vote against him. In Marshalltown, The League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa and Immigrant Allies scheduled a voter registration drive to protest his event.
“We want to turn his negativity into a positive for our community,” Joe Enriquez Henry, National LULAC vice president of the Midwest, said in a statement.
Given the sustained polling dominance, it’s time to start taking a Trump general election run very seriously. That means considering how Trump looks to the protesters outside and not just the audience inside.