Hispanics, who for more than a decade insisted they were the key to American politics, are now grappling with a life on the outside — stunned that a Republican managed to capture the White House without winning at least a third of their support.
Immigrant rights advocates insist that Latinos did turn out in record numbers, and say they voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, doubting major media exit polls that showed President-elect Donald Trump captured some 29 percent nationally.
But that leaves another conundrum: If Republicans can win without Hispanic support, that could sap the negotiating power Latinos have claimed on issues such as immigration.
“Either conclusion is contrary to the narrative that they and their surrogates in the media have been telling us for the last decade,” said Steven A. Camarota, a demographer and research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a crackdown on immigration.
Dating back to President George W. Bush’s win in 2004, when he captured some 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, political analysts have said that’s the benchmark for the expanding population. A growing Latino population and a shrinking white population meant that Republicans needed to at least match Mr. Bush’s 40 percent to be competitive in national races going forward.
That appeared to be the case in 2008 and 2012, when GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney stumbled to defeat with poor showings among Hispanics — 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively — according to the exit polls.
Analysts dubbed it the “Republican problem” with Hispanic voters, and the Republican National Committee’s election post-mortem report in 2012 recommended the party embrace legalization of illegal immigrants, saying it was the only way to capture the hearts of Latinos and be competitive.
Mr. Trump proved them wrong, running the most strident anti-illegal immigration campaign in modern political history. That message, coupled with a fierce critique of free trade deals, energized voters in Rust Belt and Midwest states and poked a hole in Democrats’ firewall.
He’s projected to gain a healthy 306-232 margin in the Electoral College — and though he lost the popular vote, analysts said he showed the GOP a path to victory that didn’t involve maximizing Hispanic voters’ support.
According to The New York Times’ published exit polls, Mr. Trump won 29 percent of Hispanics on Election Day — in between what Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain received.
Not everyone agrees.
A separate election-eve poll by Latino Decisions, a firm that specializes in Hispanic polling and has close ties to Democrats and immigrant rights groups, said just 18 percent of likely voters from the community were backing Mr. Trump.
Matt A. Barreto, one of the founders of Latino Decisions, said the evidence for Mr. Trump’s poor showing isn’t just his polling. He pointed to a series of heavily Hispanic counties and voting precincts that went overwhelmingly for Mrs. Clinton in the election, and said it’s doubtful those kinds of places were accounted for in the exit polling, which could have skewed the exit poll results.
If Latino Decisions’ numbers are correct, it means Mr. Trump managed to win while getting less than half of the 40 percent target analysts had said was the floor for Hispanic support.
Those on each side of the debate criticize the methodology of the other, and more complete reporting will come over the next few months with precinct-level turnout data and Census Bureau statistics.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading advocacy that has partnered with Latino Decisions, warned Republicans not to bank on a repeat, saying Mr. Trump is the exception.
“Trump was a unique candidate, Clinton did not bring out Democrats the way Obama had, and he threaded the needle,” Mr. Sharry said. “If one assumes that Trump runs for re-election in 2020, I think he’s going to have a very difficult time repeating the miracle. And it was a miracle.”
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, reached a similar conclusion, saying the demographics still look grim for Republicans if they can’t do better among Hispanics. He pointed to Florida, where Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, cruised to re-election by 8 percentage points, while Mr. Trump won the state by 1 point.
Mr. Ayres, writing for U.S. News & World Report, said Mr. Trump should take advantage of a “Nixon goes to China” opportunity by reversing himself and legalizing illegal immigrants.
“Doing so would create an opportunity for future Republican presidential nominees to achieve George W. Bush-like support among Hispanics, the largest swing voter group in the New America,” the pollster concluded.
Mr. Sharry said that if Democrats had held their own in the Midwest and Rust Belt, the story of the election would have been how Latinos powered Mrs. Clinton to victory by helping her keep Colorado, Nevada and Virginia blue.
“The talk of the Latino surge was real. Latinos did turn out in record numbers,” he said, predicting that, if trends, continue, Hispanics will make Arizona and Texas — two longtime GOP strongholds — competitive in future elections.
Mr. Camarota, however, said if the exit polls are right, this year’s election suggests Republicans can win nearly 30 percent of Latino support while taking a strict stance on illegal immigration, puncturing the conventional wisdom that Hispanics are largely single-issue voters.
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