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How a Growing Latino Population Provided Fertile Ground for Exploitation by the Trump Campaign

New research suggests Trump's anti-immigrant message kick-started his campaign.
Latinos vote at a polling station in El Gallo Restaurant on November 8th, 2016, in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, California.

The brief government shutdown was blamed, in part, on the fact that President Donald Trump keeps vacillating on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. He seems sympathetic to the plight of kids brought to the United States by their undocumented parents, but he can't quite bring himself to make a deal that would allow them to stay here legally.

New research offers a possible reason for his hesitation: Trump may feel for these people, but he's also aware that his stoking of anti-immigrant sentiment is, arguably, what got his campaign off the ground.

study reveals that, after he labeled Mexican immigrants rapists and proposed a border wall, his backing rose substantially among a specific sub-group of Republican voters: Those living in areas with a growing Latino population.

"Support for Trump early in the campaign was drawn from areas where citizens had lived experience with Latino growth," writes a research team led by political scientist Benjamin Newman of the University of California–Riverside. This suggests "the political ascent of Trump represents an adversarial reaction among racially threatened Americans to the expansion of Latino populations in their own communities."

The findings add to the evidence that racial resentment was integral to Trump's appeal, at least among Republican primary voters.

Newman, along with colleagues Loren Collingwood and Sono Shah, analyzed data from four 2015 surveys conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Each survey asked Republican respondents whether their view of Trump was favorable or unfavorable.

The first was taken in March, just after Trump unofficially began his candidacy by forming an "exploratory committee." The second was in June, just before his official announcement speech, in which he made his infamous Mexican rapists remark.

The third was in July, about a month after that speech. The final poll, in August, was taken weeks after a speech in which he first proposed building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The researchers tracked the effects of this rhetoric on support for Trump, and compared the shifts in his approval ratings with the demographic information on the counties where survey respondents lived. Using data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, they specifically examined the increase in each county's Latino population since the turn of the century.

"Residing in a high-Latino-growth area is predictive of support for Trump," they report, "but not before his utterance of inflammatory and bellicose comments about Mexican immigrants." In other words, Republicans living in such areas did not have particularly positive feelings about the reality television star until he started his racially provocative ranting.

Interestingly, this association weakened when the researchers narrowed their analysis to the local increase in Latino immigrants (as opposed to Hispanic-American citizens who relocated from another state or county). This suggests Trump support was "indicative of hostility towards Latinos in general," the researchers write.

The results suggest that the discomfort felt by many white Republicans as they saw the demographics of their home county changing "created a latent support for Trump that was activated by his racially inflammatory statements about Mexican immigrants," the researchers conclude. "Scholars argue that the growth of the Latino population, and the presence of a black man in the White House, has caused many white Americans to feel the extant racial hierarchy is under attack, which in turn unleashed a white backlash. Our research strongly aligns with this narrative."

It also dovetails with new research from the United Kingdom, which found telling people the immigrant population is rapidly rising increases the likelihood they will support anti-immigrant political candidates. It appears that, in the U.S., some voters saw that demographic shift with their own eyes, perceived it as threatening, and resonated to the rough, racially tinged language of Trump.

For the president, backing down now would mean tacitly admitting that immigrants aren't so threatening after all, and the foundational premise of his campaign was a sham. No wonder he can't get to yes.