Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared he was “No. 1 with Hispanics” in his victory speech after the Nevada caucus.
Mr. Trump was referring to entrance polling that showed him winning 45% of the Hispanic vote on Tuesday, trouncing his two Cuban-American rivals, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
To his supporters, his success in the first Republican nominating contest in a state with a large Hispanic population suggests the crackdown on illegal immigration at the crux of his presidential campaign isn’t driving away Hispanic voters. But the small sample size in the entrance poll—less than 130 Hispanic voters—leaves open the question of his support among those voters.
A new Washington Post/Univision News survey, which surveyed 1,200 Latino registered voters, found 8 and out of 10 Hispanic voters view Mr. Trump unfavorably, giving him the highest negative rating of any Republican candidate.
Thursday’s GOP debate in Houston, sponsored by CNN and Telemundo, was the first forum broadcasted on a Spanish-language network, with questions geared toward a Hispanic audience.
Another test of the GOP field comes on Tuesday in Texas, which has the second largest Hispanic population in the country and will be among 11 states holding nominating contests.
“The full impact of Trump’s statements on the Hispanic community, Mexico and immigration is going to be tested,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the nonpartisan U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“If you look at the delta between the Hispanic votes he’s received so far and the number he needs to get into the White House, he has a long, long way to go,” he added.
More than 13 million Hispanic voters will participate in the 2016 election, according to estimates this week by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. That would mark a 17% increase in turnout and nearly a 9% increase in the Hispanic share of the electorate since 2012.
The GOP hit its lowest level of Hispanic support in decades in the 2012 election, when nominee Mitt Romney received only 27% of the vote. Mr. Romney was widely criticized for recommending “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “drug dealers” when he announced his candidacy in June and has called for massive deportations of people who came into the U.S. illegally.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Telemundo poll released earlier this month found Mr. Trump with the worst ratings in the GOP field among Hispanic voters, with 65% having a very negative view and another 10% with a negative view. Only 15% had a positive view.
Mr. Rubio drew a net negative rating of 15%, while Mr. Cruz received a net negative rating of 26%.
Mr. Rubio’s supporters expect him to inherit some Hispanic support from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race Saturday after a poor showing in the South Carolina primary. This week, Mr. Rubio announced endorsements from several prominent Puerto Rican Republicans, including former Gov. Luis Fortuño.
Mr. Rubio has refrained from making overtly ethnic appeals, speaking more generically about the sacrifices made by his immigrant parents in pursuit of the American dream.
On Wednesday, Mr. Rubio’s campaign raised objections to an automated call from a super PAC backing Mr. Trump, in which a self-described white supremacist says: “Don’t vote for a Cuban. Vote for Donald Trump.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Trump said he disavowed the calls to voters in Minnesota and Vermont.
But Mr. Trump’s critics say his anti-immigrant rhetoric has laid the ground work for hate speech.
The New York billionaire has called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to counter possible terrorist attacks and for Mexico to pay for a massive wall along the U.S. southern border.
“He’s signaled that it’s okay and that there are no negative consequences to talk about certain groups in pejorative ways,” said Richard Herrera, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.
“It’s really hard to tell at this point how Hispanics are going to break, but there are signs that it will be hard for any Republican, regardless of their surname, to make serious inroads with” those voters because Mr. Trump has damaged the GOP brand, he added.
There is no guarantee Hispanics will vote for a candidate simply because they share the same ethnicity, Mr. Herrara added.
A Republican National Committee review of the 2012 election recommended the GOP step up its Hispanic outreach and embrace a sweeping overhaul of immigration law. But Mr. Trump’s rise has pushed most of the GOP candidates to take a hard line on illegal immigration.
“My advice to all of the candidates is not to make the same mistakes Mitt Romney made of ignoring and ostracizing the Hispanic community,” said Mr. Palomarez, who has been hosting forums for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. “I also advise them not to use cheap gimmicks like challenging your opponent to a Spanish-speaking contest.”
In the last Republican debate in South Carolina, Mr. Cruz accused Mr. Rubio of telling Univision network viewers in Spanish that he wouldn’t strike President Barack Obama’s order protecting millions of illegal immigrants from deportation.
Mr. Rubio shot back: “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.”