When it comes to Donald Trump and Latino voters this November, the only question that remains is whether the result is going to be merely bad or seriously awful, damaging the Republican Party for years to come.

Since the start of his campaign, Mr. Trump has made himself unpalatable to Latino voters – a critical and fast-growing segment of the American electorate. He has described Mexicans as criminals and rapists, called for the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants and pledged to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

Now, with two and a half months to go until election day in the United States and trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the polls, Mr. Trump appears open to executing a remarkable U-turn. In an interview on Fox News on Wednesday, he floated the idea of allowing many undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally – a position he has ruled out in the past. He also met with a group of Hispanic leaders last weekend and has said there could be a “softening” of his positions on immigration, one of his signature issues.

“Donald Trump has finally figured out that you can’t win a presidential election in the America of 2016 with just white voters,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “The problem is that he spent 15 months castigating and denigrating one non-white minority group after the other. You don’t get to unring the bell.”

Indeed, the 11th-hour manoeuvring is unlikely to change Mr. Trump’s basic challenge: He remains toxic to a large majority of Latino voters in proportions that could cost him the election. For Republican presidential candidates, a rough rule of thumb is that to secure victory, they must receive upward of 40 per cent of the Latino vote. Current polls show Mr. Trump winning between 20 and 24 per cent of such voters.

Mr. Trump is likely to receive the lowest share of Latino voters of any presidential candidate since such numbers began to be analyzed in the 1980s, said Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst at polling firm Latino Decisions and a professor at Pitzer College. In an optimistic scenario, Mr. Trump might match the level of support received by Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 – 27 per cent. But that figure “is not sufficient to win this election,” Prof. Pantoja said.

More worrisome for some Republicans is the possibility that the reputational damage caused by Mr. Trump’s candidacy could last for years. In 2016, a record 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to vote. In certain states, voter registration by Latinos is surging, possibly in response to his rhetoric. Even high-profile Latino Republicans have felt the need to publicly condemn Mr. Trump.

Carlos Gutierrez, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush , endorsed Ms. Clinton last week. “I don’t want to go back to a country where, if a child has a Spanish last name … the leader of the country is giving kids a license to bully them,” Mr. Gutierrez said in an interview with CNN, referring to Mr. Trump’s criticism of a Latino federal judge on the basis of his ethnic background.

Lionel Sosa is a marketing executive and branding consultant in Texas who created television advertisements for Republican presidential candidates starting with Ronald Reagan. This year will be the first time in more than five decades that Mr. Sosa will not cast a ballot for the Republican nominee.

He said he was highly insulted by Mr. Trump’s comments last year on immigration (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”). These are “people that we interact with every day,” Mr. Sosa said. “It’s people who are good, honest, hard-working individuals who are coming to this country to make a better life for themselves.”

Nothing that Mr. Trump says now will change Mr. Sosa’s decision not to vote for him. “Anything he does to reverse his stance is because he’s being told to do it. He doesn’t have the sense to do it on his own,” Mr. Sosa said.

In crucial swing states such as Florida and North Carolina, the number of Hispanic voters is increasing. There were 1.8 million such voters registered in Florida as of February, or 15 per cent of the electorate. That’s up from 13 per cent four years earlier, according to data from the state’s Division of Elections. In North Carolina, a state with a history of close presidential results, Hispanic voters make up a small but rapidly growing percentage of the electorate. The number registered now stands at 150,000, an increase of 20 per cent from a year earlier.

Jose Fernando Martinez is hoping to be one of them. Mr. Martinez is originally from El Salvador and has lived in the U.S. since 2000. He always planned to apply for American citizenship but accelerated his timetable because of Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Martinez should take the oath of citizenship in late September or early October, just in time to register to vote in the election. “I can’t wait to get it done,” he said. “I am even more afraid than ever” of a possible Trump presidency.

Some experts say this presidential election could make an entire generation of Latino voters view the Republican Party with hostility. They draw parallels with California in the 1990s, when state Republicans spearheaded a ballot measure to bar undocumented immigrants from attending public schools and using other social services. The battle galvanized young Latino voters and helped Democrats to dominate the state’s government.

Latino voters “are not going to forget this election and they are not going to forget Trump’s rhetoric,” Prof. Pantoja said. “They’re also not going to forget how Republican leaders stood by.”

Some Republicans hope that the party can swiftly make amends by adopting a different tone toward Latinos and immigrants. As recently as 2004, a Republican candidate for president – George W. Bush – won at least 40 per cent of the Latino vote. “If we lose [in November], which I think we will, then we can’t afford to lose one more,” said Mr. Sosa, the Republican marketing executive. “You either change or die.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016 2:33PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Aug. 26, 2016 6:06AM EDT