NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – Republican front-runner Donald Trump is widely unpopular among the nation's Hispanics, a new AP-GfK poll finds, challenging the billionaire's oft-repeated assertion that he will win the Hispanic vote if he becomes his party's nominee.
The survey finds many of the Republican candidates running for president would probably struggle to win significant support among Hispanics in a general election. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are their favorites, but even they are a hard sell, the poll suggests.
Even so, most in the field are unknown to enough Hispanics that they might have a shot at proving themselves.
That's a particular struggle for Trump, who began his campaign for president by calling some immigrants from Mexico rapists and has vowed to deport all of the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally if he is elected president. Trump is viewed unfavorably by 72 percent of Hispanics, with 6 in 10 having a very unfavorable opinion of him, the AP-GfK poll finds. Only 11 percent view him favorably.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights advocacy group, said the findings are no surprise and "consistent from what we've heard from the community."
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Trump's provocative comments about the character of immigrants and his plans for mass deportation and construction of a wall all along the Mexican border stirred a backlash from Hispanic groups. He also bailed on an event with Hispanic business leaders.
Nonetheless, Trump says Hispanics love him.
"I have fantastic relationships with the Hispanics," Trump said last week. "I employ thousands of Hispanics right now, tens of thousands over the years I've employed. They're fantastic people."
He went on: "I think I will win with Hispanics when the word gets out."
The comments followed protests by a coalition of Hispanic groups infuriated over NBC's decision to invite him to host "Saturday Night Live" next month.
Among Trump's rivals, Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish and married a Mexican-born woman, is viewed most favorably by Hispanics, with 26 percent giving the former Florida governor a positive rating. Rubio, a Florida senator and Cuban-American, comes in second, with 23 percent viewing him favorably.
Still, both Bush and Rubio are viewed unfavorably by more than one-third of Hispanics polled.
Trump does have a following of enthusiastic Hispanic backers who have launched groups like "Latinos Support Trump" on social media. During his visit to the Mexican border in the summer, for instance, he was cheered by a dozens of Hispanic supporters, many of whom were born in the country or entered legally and resented those who came against the law.
But advocacy groups say the idea of Trump winning the Hispanic vote is less than unlikely.
Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said Trump is in for a rude awakening if he thinks Hispanics love him. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Palomarez, whose group Trump was supposed to speak to before his abrupt cancellation, said the growing Hispanic population will be crucial to any candidate.
"Never again will a president be elected without courting the Hispanic vote," he said. "He's going to find out that we're the gatekeepers to the White House."
Palomarez said Trump "crystalized for the Hispanic community" whom they will vote against.
Murguia said she doesn't see much Trump can do to improve his standing with Hispanics.
"He has dug himself in a pretty deep hole with the Latino community," she said. "And while he talks about wanting to create jobs — and certainly our community cares about jobs and the economy — he has poisoned the well significantly with the Latino community."
She said he faces a long slog with Hispanics "if he doesn't come to terms with the fact that he's going to have to apologize or do a complete about-face."
After Mitt Romney's loss to President Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican Party called for passing an immigration overhaul and taking steps within the party to appeal to more Hispanics, in recognition of their growing influence.
After advocating for self-deportation during his campaign, Romney won 59 percent of the white vote in that general election but just 27 percent from Hispanics.