STRANGE BUT TRUE

02.25.16 5:01 AM ET

Yes, Donald Trump Won Latinos Over Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Here’s Why.

Why the Republican frontrunner just might be able to build on his success with Latino voters in Nevada—and win the White House as a result.

We know about the Reagan Democrats. In the 1980s, union members in blue states defied their leaders in organized labor to vote for the 40th president.

Well, in Nevada, the first of the early primary or caucus states with a significant number of Latino voters, we’ve caught a glimpse of a similar phenomenon—one that few could have imagined when Donald Trump entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

You may recall that the billionaire businessman launched his foray into politics eight months ago with a speech that declared that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime,” and that they were “rapists,” criminals and murderers even though, he assumed, “some are good people.” Now, it seems, some of those good people are enamored of their tormentor.

Behold, the Trump Latinos.

According to CNN entrance polls, among Latino Republican voters in the Silver State, John Kasich got 4 percent, Ted Cruz 18 percent, and Marco Rubio 29 percent. Trump got an astounding 44 percent.

I can only think of two people who don’t seem surprised by Trump’s strong showing with Latinos.

The first is Trump himself, who has been saying for months that he would do well with Hispanics. In fact, Trump would often point to early polling from Nevada that showed him beating his rivals decisively with Hispanics, which is what happened.

Trump has a theory. He thinks that Hispanics know that he will create jobs and that many of these jobs will go to Hispanics because his years in business have taught him that Hispanics are especially hard workers.

The other person who saw this coming was me. Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this site that looked at the phenomenon of “Latinos for Trump.” That piece was criticized by everyone from white Democrats to Latino activists to Republicans supported other candidates.

Now, if you look at the entrance polls out of Nevada, it seems clear that these critics don’t know much about Latinos.

Granted, these surveys are not the definitive final word. This was a small sample of voters, and many polling experts doubt the accuracy of entrance polls. Besides, we are talking about just Latino Republicans who went to vote on a given day in the state of Nevada. That’s hardly a representative sample of Latinos across the country.

And, finally, it is worth noting, most Latinos weren’t even on the table for Republicans in Nevada because more than two-thirds of the community are registered Democrats. In fact, if Trump is ultimately the Republican nominee, it will almost assure a Latino landslide for Hillary Clinton, who could walk away with as much as 80 percent of the Latino vote.

Still, all those caveats and conditions don’t change what happened in Nevada, or its significance. We need to unpack that.

But first, let me explain a few things about my tribe. The 54 million Latinos in the United States—whose ancestors can be traced to more than a dozen countries—could yield an estimated 13 million voters in November. And many of those voters will be in three battleground states—Nevada, Colorado, and Florida.

Next, there is no suspense as to which party will scoop up the lion’s share of those votes. It’s the same party that has won the majority of Latino votes in every presidential election since 1960: The Democratic Party. No Republican presidential candidate has ever won the majority of Latino votes.

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Finally, while many in Washington will often try to compare Latinos with African-Americans as another aggrieved minority that has endured everything from inferior schools to overt discrimination to economic inequality, there is a competing line of thought that suggests Latinos are more comparable to other Catholic immigrant groups, like the Irish and Italians.

Like their European immigrant brethren, Latinos want to come to their ethnicity on their own terms. They are fiercely patriotic Americans who nonetheless identify as Latino. And they don’t feel as if they must choose one over the other.

That is relevant to this discussion because, as one reader put it to me recently: “If these voters think like Americans, they’ll vote for Trump. If they think like Latinos, they won’t.”

Now, here’s what happened in Nevada. The Latino community in the United States—and especially the nearly 70 percent of that population that is Mexican or Mexican-American—is highly aspirational. They don’t settle. They want better lives for themselves and their children. They want success. They don’t hate Trump. They want to be Trump.

In states like Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Utah, and others, far away from the nation’s power triangle (New York-Boston-Washington), there were many average Latinos living ordinary lives who are being drawn to Trump and his promise to “Make America Great Again.” Like many other Americans who are flocking to the real estate mogul, these Latinos want to know what it’s like to live in a country that is always winning and winning.

And what about Trump’s inflammatory comments about Mexico and immigration along our southern border?

It’s complicated. While generally more appreciative than other Americans of immigration, respectful of the contributions of legal and illegal immigrants, and supportive of a comprehensive reform plan that provides the undocumented with a path to earned legal status, many Latinos are also ambivalent about illegal immigration—especially if they, or their ancestors, came legally.

They’re leery of immigrants who abuse the system and feel entitled to make demands of the country that took them in, while waving the flag of the country that cast them adrift. They’re also fed up with what they see as a new militancy among the undocumented immigrants of today—particularly young DREAM’ers who were brought here as children and seem to understand everything about this country except what it demands of its citizens and those who aspire to be citizens.

Like Trump, these Latino voters know something is wrong with the nation’s immigration system. They might not agree with his proposed solutions, but they’re not going to hold against him the fact that he’s brave enough to start the discussion. Besides, when Trump blasts Mexican immigrants as criminals, many Latinos just assume he’s talking about someone else.

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised that the chattering class completely missed the “Latinos for Trump” story. Much of it fell into their blind spot.

The East Coast media don’t get Latinos. Neither do the political parties. Ditto for most commentators, pundits, and political strategists. In fact, just about everyone with an opinion has the wrong opinion about Latinos.

For instance, they all seem to think that Latinos are demanding from government and other institutions that they be siphoned off into their own separate group and showered with preferential treatment and special accommodations. Not true.

Latinos don’t want to apart from America, and they aren’t in conflict with America. They are the essence of America.

If Donald Trump figures this out, and learns how to talk to these people with respect, there will be no stopping him. And he might as well start redecorating the Oval Office.