Two days before the presidential election, a remarkable media narrative was taking shape. Latinos, huge numbers of them, were turning out to vote early, and they were doing it in crucial swing states.
It looked like the election, in which many Latinos had felt attacked by the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, was going to end with the most poetic justice. Latinos were going to deliver Trump’s candidacy its final death blow.
But just as important to Maria Teresa Kumar, the president of Voto Latino, was the flip side of that justice. After many elections in which Latino voters had been important but not decisive, they would finally be able to say that they had delivered the presidency — in this case to Hillary Clinton. That would be the most powerful narrative, because it would also portend big things for the future.
Kumar and other Latino leaders were already getting ready to whip out what Kumar had taken to calling their “De Nada” agenda (de nada is Spanish for “You’re welcome”). It was a list of policy priorities they knew they’d be able to demand of the new president thanks to the crucial role Latinos were going to have played in electing her.
At the top of the list – as it has been for years — was immigration reform. Also on the list: Improvements to health care, education, and women’s reproductive rights.
Then, of course, the unexpected happened. On Nov. 8, Kumar had been at MSNBC serving as an on-air commentator all night. After Trump won it all, she said she was walking through the hallway and ran into one of the few Latinos who works at the network. He was crying.
“Because he knew what had just happened to our community,” Kumar said.
Latino leaders had expected to be able to finally pass immigration reform, including protections for the 16 million immigrants who are either undocumented or live in homes where someone is undocumented. With a Clinton victory, they expected to pass it even if Congress remained in Republican hands.
“When people feel heat, they coalesce and end up doing the right thing if only to save their own political skins,” Kumar said.
Instead, the expectation of power and influence that Latino leaders thought they would have come inauguration day was dashed by the Republican sweep. Trump, a man who promised mass deportations, called Mexican immigrants rapists, and who Latino civil rights leaders say has, to date, refused to meet with them, had ascended to the presidency.
Two days after the election, a coalition of Latino groups called a press conference at the National Council of La Raza’s headquarters in Washington, at the same time that President Obama was welcoming President-elect Trump into the Oval Office just four blocks away.
At the lectern, leaders of those groups spoke of their pride over what had, in fact, been record Latino voter turnout. But they were also on the defensive. They implored the media to stop citing exit poll data that suggested 29 percent of Latinos had supported Trump. They pointed instead to data from Latino Decisions, a widely respected polling firm that claims a more precise methodology, that indicate the number was actually 18 percent.
“The Latino population is significant enough in numbers that there is no excuse to keep getting these numbers incorrect,” said Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza. “Or at least to not know enough about challenging the data that is coming out.”
For Latino leaders, the distinction is crucial, because it defines the final narrative about the role Latinos played in this election. At 18 percent, Trump’s support among Latinos is a record low for Republicans, becoming a bargaining chip for Latino leaders who might warn that this kind of under-performance becomes even more consequential in the next election, when Latinos will be a larger share of the electorate.
But at 29 percent, Trump would have done better among Latinos than Mitt Romney did in 2012, a number Republicans can point to to show that they already have significant Latino support without ever having engaged the advocates on their issues.