Why Donald Trump’s antics pose a serious long-term threat to the GOP

August 26, 2015, 5:32 PM UTC
GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In Iowa
DUBUQUE, IA - AUGUST 25: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump fields a question from Univision and Fusion anchor Jorge Ramos during a press conference held before his campaign event at the Grand River Center on August 25, 2015 in Dubuque, Iowa. Earlier in the press conference Trump had Ramos removed from the room when he failed to yield when Trump wanted to take a question from a different reporter. Trump leads most polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Olson — Getty Images

Donald Trump’s clash with Jorge Ramos, the lead anchor for both Univision and Fusion, at a Tuesday night press conference in Dubuque followed what’s become a familiar pattern in the Republican presidential candidate’s front-running campaign.

First, you have Trump blowing up in a way that shocks presidential political conventions. (In this case, the candidate had a security guard forcibly remove Ramos from the room after he refused to yield the floor while pressing Trump on his anti-immigration platform.) Then comes the media frenzy trying to make sense of what just unfolded. And then Trump himself weighs in, in the guise of a pundit commenting on his own campaign, inevitably unapologetic, setting off another round of chatter.

Wash, rinse, repeat. Trump’s entire bid has consisted of these types of gambits, strung end-to-end, ensuring he gathers more broadcast attention than the rest of the field combined. The Ramos conflagration was the second mini tempest Trump set off on Tuesday alone, having already reignited his strife with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in a series of disparaging tweets that prompted a rare public rebuke from network chief Roger Ailes.

So Trump nipping the media hand that feeds him is hardly a new development. Even still, his feud with Ramos represents a more serious threat to the GOP itself.

Republicans’ struggles to make inroads among Hispanic voters are well-known. Mitt Romney’s miserable 2012 performance among the demographic — after suggesting 11 million undocumented workers “self-deport,” he won 27% of the Hispanic vote in that election — convinced party brass that Republicans had to quickly rally and approve wholesale immigration reform to have a prayer of recapturing the White House in 2016.

Of course, that didn’t happen. The Senate, with a major assist from two of Trump’s rivals — Florida’s Marco Rubio and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham — passed a reform proposal that stalled in the House in the face of conservative opposition. And the lack of a comprehensive plan for addressing either border security or the undocumented population already here opened the door for Trump to seize the issue. It’s helped vault him into a durable lead by stoking the nativist paranoia that abides among a subsection of the right wing.

But Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery has inflamed a pair of related problems that Republican strategists first identified in the immediate aftermath of Romney’s 2012 wipeout.

The first part is simple: Hispanics have noticed. Despite Trump’s insistence that he’d carry the Hispanic vote in the general election, in the real world, his approval ratings among them are singularly awful. A Gallup tracking poll of Hispanic views toward the GOP candidates released on Monday found that while they place the rest of the field within a relatively narrow band, from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at net negative 7% to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at net positive 11%, they deeply dislike Trump, earning him a net negative 51% approval rating. (For that, Trump can thank aggressive coverage from Spanish-language media, in which Ramos is a trusted leading voice and an outspoken critic of his candidacy.) The longer Trump reigns in the primary, the concern from GOP sachems goes, the graver the damage he’ll inflict to the Republican brand, particularly among the constituencies the party will need to win over 14 months from now.

The second threat Trump presents is slightly more subtle. Call it the “Trump effect”—the scramble by lower-polling contenders to grab some of The Donald’s spotlight by either aping his combative style or his controversial platform—or both. And it was on display on Tuesday evening: While other cable networks were rehashing Trump’s flap with Ramos, Cruz popped up on Fox striking an unusually chippy tone with Megyn Kelly over his own immigration plan. Kelly cited Trump’s proposal to forcibly remove entire families—even those with children born in the United States—if the parents came in illegally, and asked Cruz how he’d address the same scenario. Cruz dodged, calling the question a distraction and one that President Obama and “every mainstream media liberal journalist” wanted to ask.

That the debate dominating the Republican primary these days is whether American-born children should be rounded up en masse with their families and booted from the country surely represents a darker nightmare than any GOP strategist sifting through the 2012 loss could have envisioned. But Trump is forging ahead. True to form, he appeared on NBC’s “Today” this morning and discussed his handling of Ramos, defiant as ever. A Ramos spokesman has suggested a sit-down may be in the works. It’d be a ratings bonanza—and another migraine for the Republican Party.

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