Election proves Latino vote was taken for granted, but hardly understood

By Deidre Martinez | Lariat Washington Bureau

The results of the presidential election have raised more questions than answers. But as the campaign dust settles, it has become increasingly evident that the country has yet to understand the complexity of the Latino vote.

From the moment then-Republican candidate Donald Trump unveiled an immigration platform based on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and associated Mexican immigrants with “crime,” “drugs” and “rapists,” a narrative emerged in which a newly-united group of Latinos would come flocking to the polls to vote against him. They were, as many people put it, a, “sleeping giant,” that was going to wake up just in time to secure a win for the Democrats.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

Exit poll numbers show that a number of Latinos actually voted for Trump. While Hillary Clinton did end up winning the demographic’s vote by a margin of 65 to 29 percent, according exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for the National Election Pool, the latter number should be closely noted. Broken down there are a variety of reasons why the percentage of Latinos who voted for Trump was not much lower.

It makes sense why people thought Trump’s immigration remarks would have served as a clear dividing line for Latinos. The error wasn’t in thinking that it didn’t exist, but in failing to acknowledge that immigration divided the group as well. The group of Latinos who voted for Trump because he was against illegal immigration was underreported this election cycle. For naturalized Latinos, their leading argument asks why others Latinos can’t legalize like they did.

In retrospect, immigration was a double-edged sword for the Clinton campaign. The issue had enough appeal to potentially bring Latino voters to the polls, but it also cornered the campaign into practically making this the only tool in their artillery. To put this in perspective, the Pew Research Center projected that 27.3 million Latinos would be able to vote in 2016. That’s roughly 12 percent of eligible voters, which is the same percentage the Pew projected for Black voters. But here is where strategy differs, African American voters were rallied under a number of causes by the Clinton campaign, including racial profiling, gun violence and criminal justice reform. Focusing on immigration is the equivalent of depending on just one of these issues to garner the African American vote – it’s just not enough to appeal to everyone in the voting pool.

Issues of identity were at the core of this election. The Latino vote is no different. Cuban-Americans traditionally vote Republican, but their vote seemed to be up in the air as conflicting ideas could have swayed their vote either way. On one hand, some Cuban-Americans drew parallels between Donald Trump and the Castro government. But on the other, a bloc of that electorate considered their own frustrations at the Obama administration’s push to ease Cuban-American relations. In the end, Florida exit polls proved the difference that nationality can make with 54 percent of Cubans in the state voting for Trump compared to the 26 percent of non-Cuban Latinos who did.

A special emphasis was put on Trump’s relationship with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. This was further heightened by his controversial visit with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and claims that a judge presiding over various lawsuits concerning Trump University might be biased because of his Mexican heritage. While many Latinos were quick to denounce Trump for his actions, the choice in taking it as a nationality-specific or general affront could have been a determining factor for individuals.

The number of Latinos who are eligible to vote is growing every year. Part of this is due to naturalization, but it’s also the result of young people turning 18. The election was rampant with appeals to young voters, and that is where there seemed to be yet another split. Early on in the primaries when Sen. Bernie Sanders ran against Clinton for the Democratic nomination, a portion of young Hispanic voters were reported as more likely to vote for Sanders over Clinton. Older Hispanics, however, were more likely to vote Clinton. While the divergence didn’t necessarily split along party lines, it comes to show that the, “where one goes, others follow,” approach is not always the case.

But when it comes to Latinos, generational differences don’t just refer to age either. The term can be used to describe how far away one is from an ancestor born in another country. This matters because issue prominence is often ranked by proximity or experience. For example, a fourth-generation Latino might rank economic policy over immigration because unlike a second-generation voter, the likelihood of dealing with a first-generation family member is much lower. At the same time, questions of languages spoken in the household and assimilation to American culture make gauging how Latinos will vote much more difficult.

The “Election Night” sketch in last week’s Saturday Night Live summed up what a large portion of Americans were thinking prior to Nov. 8: The Latino vote was going to bring home a Clinton win. And just like the SNL characters, people were eager to cheer, “To Latinos,” before fully understanding that there is still a long way to go in terms of understanding this growing demographic.