One of the recurring questions in the run-up to Tuesday’s elections was whether Hispanic voters would finally emerge as a factor to be reckoned with in American political life, given their tendency to underperform. Despite accounting for 12 percent of the American electorate and growing, the more than 29 million eligible Latino voters in the United States show up at the polls less than any other demographic. Their turnout during midterms has been particularly dismal. In 2014, a mere 27 percent showed up at the polls (imagine 18 million people choosing to sit out a national election for absolutely no reason at all and you get the idea). Numbers haven’t been much better for presidential cycles: In 2016, more than 47 percent of eligible Hispanics chose to vote, a dozen points below black turnout.
Still, these figures are from before Donald Trump was elected president on an openly nativist message. Since then, Trump has targeted the undocumented and low-skilled immigrants that have deep ties to the country’s Hispanic community. The president’s relentless attacks have made longtime observers of Hispanic voters wonder whether Trump will be the catalyst to shake Hispanics from their slumber. Would Latino turnout finally improve for local, congressional, and state elections? And would Hispanics turn this year’s elections into a resounding disavowal of Trump and those who have enabled the president’s divisive rhetoric and punitive arrogance towards immigrants?
After the midterms, the answers to these questions suggest renewed hope for the future of Hispanic political engagement but also offer a frustrating account of discord and fragmentation for those of us who, perhaps naively, expect Latinos to react to Trump’s unprecedented confrontation with the community with some sense of electoral cohesion.
Before Tuesday, studies showed rising Hispanic engagement with the midterms. Even though the final numbers won’t be known for a while, Hispanic turnout seems to have grown substantially. Exit polls have offered better overall turnout numbers, especially compared with the 2014 abyss. There was an exponential increase in the number of absentee ballots requested by Latinos in Florida, Texas, and even California. According to polling organization Latino Decisions, an impressive number of counties in Texas at least doubled previous turnouts among Hispanics, helping Beto O’Rourke along the way. “Dónde votar,” Spanish for “where to vote,” led Google’s trending searches on Election Day.
It is fair to say, then, that barring a surprise when final numbers become available, Hispanics did indeed take part in larger numbers during this year’s midterms—good news for a community used to the opposite.
How they voted is another matter.
After the 2016 election, Latino pollsters and scholars engaged in a heated argument over whether it was possible that 29 percent of Hispanic voters had favored Donald Trump, improving on Mitt Romney’s numbers from 2012 by a couple of percentage points. Skeptics argued that it was hardly believable that Trump could earn such a share of a constituency he had belittled constantly throughout the presidential campaign. Tuesday’s results should help settle the debate, at least with regards to the appeal of Republican candidates among a considerable swath of the Hispanic electorate. While exit polls showed other demographics overwhelmingly rejecting the party in power, Latinos seemed to be noticeably, if not quite evenly, split. CNN’s exit poll identified 29 percent of Latinos as Republican voters in its nationwide survey. Thirty-five percent seem to have chosen Ted Cruz over Beto O’Rourke, while 44 percent appear to have voted for the Republican candidate for governor in Florida, Ron DeSantis, a controversial immigration hard-liner and one of Trump’s darlings. Even in Nevada, with its remarkable Hispanic electoral machinery that traditionally favors Democrats, 30 percent seem to have voted for Republican Dean Heller.
These numbers don’t mean that the Democratic Party is in danger of losing support among Hispanic voters. On the contrary: According to exit polls, young Hispanics seemed to favor Democratic candidates in larger numbers than old Hispanics. But it certainly means that Hispanic voters have not decided to reject Trump in any disciplined, uniform manner, the way that, say, black women have. And that, quite frankly, is a mystery all its own. A few hours after the election, University of Southern California professor Roberto Suro, whom I recently interviewed for Slate’s Trumpcast, offered a succinct yet powerful observation on Twitter. “Latinos were the targets of a relentless, vicious, racist attack by a sitting president the likes of which we have not seen directed at any demographic group since…when? Is there any precedent?” Suro wrote. “What would have been a proportional response? Given the provocation, you’d think the response would be obvious.”
Suro has a point. However some optimistic pollsters and scholars wish to spin it, Hispanic voters still haven’t reached their full potential and, most of all, have yet to decide to send a clear, unequivocal message to those in power who have repeatedly harassed the community with almost complete impunity. The Republican Party’s actions against the Hispanic community have not yet been met by an equal and opposite reaction. This is a moral failure.
The fact that so many still chose to grant their vote to some of Trump’s most dedicated enablers defies comprehension. Or perhaps, in the end, Hispanics really have less in common with each other than many of us believe.