Patrick Ruffini: What Donald Trump can learn from George W. Bush about winning Hispanic voters
Read the full analysis by Patrick Ruffini in The Intersection on Substack
We’re now in the middle of one of those way-too-online primary season spats with Donald Trump trying to disqualify Ron DeSantis as a “Bush Republican.” The inciting event here is that Jeb Bush was a previous Florida governor who made an appearance at DeSantis’s inauguration and has said nice things about his successor. The missing context here is that before he was the purported avatar of a squishy establishment open-borders consensus, Jeb! had a reputation as the more conservative of the brothers, who probably lost his first gubernatorial bid in 1994 because he ran too far to the right. Had Jeb Bush emerged victorious in 1994, many believe that he, not George W. Bush, would have been the heir apparent for the 2000 presidential nomination.
The current spat is representative of all the ways that the term “Bush Republican” is now an epithet in the modern MAGA-ified GOP. Yet for all the political success Donald Trump has achieved—busting up the Blue Wall, coming within less than a point of re-election after being counted out for all of 2020—George W. Bush was the better vote-getter, actually winning re-election, which Trump failed to do, along the way becoming last Republican to win the popular vote.
Trump’s near-win in 2020 was significant because it showed the resilience of a Republican coalition based on working-class voters. (I’ve even got a book coming out that focuses heavily on this topic.) Trump hasn’t needed to be a popular politician in the classic sense because of the unique advantages such a coalition brings to the table in the Electoral College, with a 3.8 point pro-Republican bias in 2020.
A big part of Trump’s near-win in 2020 was his surprising strength among Hispanics—the same group he ranted about “bringing drugs, bringing crime” in his 2016 announcement speech. He surged in places like Miami-Dade County, giving him the advantage in Florida, and in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
But Trump’s showing, impressive though it was, was not the high-water mark for Republicans and the Hispanic vote in the modern era. George W. Bush earned an eye-popping 44 percent of the Hispanic vote according to the 2004 exit poll, topping Donald Trump’s 36 percent in 2020 in AP VoteCast survey, the more reliable of the two modern exit polls.
At some level, Trump’s Hispanic showing is being graded on a curve. Because Trump was supposed to be a uniquely awful politician for Hispanics, demonizing Mexicans and shutting down new Hispanic immigration, the fact that he did better than previous “kinder, gentler” Republicans is an eye-opener. Of course, this view relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of Hispanic voters, as Ruy Teixeira points out: that they’re activist “voters of color” who view immigration through same lens as Black voters view civil rights, instead of normie voters with middle of the road views on most issues.
When viewed on a longer time horizon, Trump’s 2020 performance seems more a bit less impressive and more of a return to the normal trendline—perhaps one that will presage Republicans performing above-trend for the next few cycles, perhaps not. George W. Bush likely did better than Trump among Hispanics in both of his elections. But Trump gets credit for lifting the party out of its 2008-16 trough, which seems to have been caused at least in part by immigration politics. The key ingredient was Trump downplaying immigration in 2020, while also elevating a brand of all-out culture war politics elsewhere that was more appealing to Hispanics than the buttoned-down establishment politics of John McCain or Mitt Romney. But, nonetheless, the all-time Republican champion of winning over Hispanic voters remains Trump’s party nemesis: George W. Bush.
Looking Back on Bush’s Hispanic Vote Performance
When George W. Bush was making the case that he could be the Republicans’ savior after two terms of being thoroughly outmatched politically by Bill Clinton, he pointed to his success with Hispanic voters in Texas, whom he split evenly as part of a rousing 199
8 re-election victory with 69 percent of the vote. In a party less diverse than it is today, “Viva Bush” signs sprouted up at Republican rallies. Bush made a point of speaking Spanish and famously said that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande,” a striking re
minder of a time when advocates of a softer immigration politics were not shouted down in Republican primaries. His first event upon arriving at the 2000 Republican convention was aimed squarely at Hispanics. An ad made for Bush’s 2004 campaign—copied directly from an ad Jeb Bush had run in Florida—showed a sequence of flags for various Latin American countries blended into an American flag. I couldn’t find the ad online, but this Los Angeles Times account of Bush’s advertising is emblematic of the kind of messaging his campaign ran to Latinos:
Over a fast-moving shot of a city skyline and an American flag rippling in front of the Texas state banner, a deep-voiced man reassures: “En nuestro pais ha llegado un nuevo dia.” (In our country, a new day has arrived).
The narrator continues in Spanish about Gov. George W. Bush’s family values in a 30-second TV commercial that
features good-looking students, scientists and cheerleaders who could presumably benefit from his presidency. The spot concludes with the Republican candidate, wearing a cotton work shirt and jeans, saying four words: “Es un nuevo dia.”
The exit polls in 2000 showed him surging from the dismal 21 percent earned by Bob Dole in 1996 to 35 percent, and preci
nct results at the time appear to confirm this shift. Take a look at California for example, which was vaguely considered in-play at the time. My early #ElectionTwitter-style map showing localized swings from 1996 to 2000 showed Bush surging more in Hispanic areas of Los Angel
es, along the border outside San Diego, in heavily Hispanic Imperial county just inland of that, and in parts of the Central Valley. As you can probably surmise, the color scheme here
is reversed from modern conventions—Republican gains are in blue.