clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Don’t believe those exit polls saying 25 percent of Latinos voted for Trump

An anti-Trump protest, in Los Angeles, August 2015.
An anti-Trump protest, in Los Angeles, August 2015.
Mark Ralston / Getty

There was a lot of talk about this being the year the Latino vote would sway the election. It didn’t quite happen, but the outcome shouldn’t distract us from the strides made in turnout and democratic engagement in that population.

That turnout has been severely understated by the National Election Pool exit polls, on which many post-election reports are drawing: Those suggest that fully 25 percent of Latinos supported Trump.

But that’s just wrong. The severe limitations of traditional exit polls to properly capture the Latino electorate have long been obvious to scholars. Improper precinct selection, for example, leads to non-representative samples that inflate support for Republicans.

The more nuanced surveys by Latino Decisions, the firm where I work, found that Trump received the lowest level of support among Latino voters on record for any presidential candidate: a mere 18 percent.

For context, that compares with 23 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 25 percent for John McCain in 2008.

Clinton, in turn, attracted a record 79 percent of the Latino vote. (The other 3 percent voted for third-party candidates.)

A “Trump bump” in Latino interest in the election has been evident all year

On the one hand, that speaks to just how large the surge in white working-class voters for Trump was — a surge that many have concluded ultimately tipped the balance. But it also suggests that without Latinos, Hillary Clinton might not have won the popular vote, nor come so close to winning the election outright. Furthermore, Latino voters were consequential in US Senate races in Nevada and Colorado.

I want to make two emphatic points. First, Latino turnout was up significantly in 2016 compared with 2012. Second, the 79 percent vote for Secretary Clinton represents a profound rejection of Trumpism and its toxic message to Latinos and immigrants.

Let’s begin our discussion with the huge turnout of Latino voters in 2016. Our LD Turnout Predict tool estimates that somewhere between 13.1 and 14.7 million Latinos cast a ballot in 2016, a substantial increase from the 11.2 million Latino votes cast in 2012. With Latino early voting numbers across the nation outpacing our LD Turnout Predict projections, we may even see Latino turnout reach 15 million in 2016 once all the votes are tallied.

Latinos turned out in high numbers, and they turned out early, outpacing early voting numbers from 2012 in essentially all key battleground states, including Florida — where they improved their early vote numbers from 2012 by nearly 90 percent. This led to Latinos making up more than 14 percent of all early ballots cast in Florida. (Latinos constitute 24 percent of the Florida population, showing that potential for improvement in turnout remains.)

The election result data from across the country corroborates what we have been seeing all year in our polling data: Latinos were more enthusiastic about voting in 2016 than in past years.

When we look at the numbers from our Election Eve Poll, a sample of 5,500 Latino voters conducted in the final days of the campaign, we see that the enthusiasm we saw in the pre-election polls continued through the casting of votes. For example, we found that 53 percent of Latino voters nationwide voted early, either by mail (or absentee ballot) or through an early voting location.

If only for practical reasons, Trump needs to reach out to Latinos

This assertion of power at the polls is important, despite Clinton’s loss. It would be pragmatic — not to mention the right thing to do — for newly elected Donald Trump to repair his relations with the Latino electorate. Especially given that the size of the Latino electorate will continue to grow between now and 2020, Latinos could very well turn him out of office in four years.

Our polling throughout the election season indicated that the high levels of enthusiasm to vote among Latinos was driven largely by a goal to keep Trump from winning the election, a phenomenon we’ve called the Trump bump. The volatile comments made by the GOP nominee throughout the entire campaign season appeared to energize the Latino electorate, and the Election Eve Poll confirms these trends: 84 percent of Latino voters stated that Donald Trump was either “hostile” toward Latinos or Hispanics or “did not care too much” about them.

For comparison, on this question Trump was viewed more negatively than the Republican Party overall; 30 percent of Latinos in the poll believe the Republican Party was hostile toward Latinos during the 2016 campaign. The Republican Party therefore faces a choice over whether it wishes to improve its standing with Latino voters. The Trump example aside, it would be highly risky for the party to conclude it can win without Latinos.

A notable rise in first-time voters

According to the Election Eve data, we found that 20 percent of Latino voters in 2016 were first-time voters — in large part motivated by anti-Trump sentiment.

When we look at variation across states, we see that Latino support was as high as 88 percent in New York, and well above 80 percent across every state except for Florida. Even in Florida, where the Latino vote split is the closest, the gap was 69 percent for Clinton to 31 percent for Trump. Cuban Americans, who remain more conservative in ideology than non-Cuban Latinos, help make Florida distinctive from the rest of the country. (We found that such voters in Florida actually broke for Trump 52 percent to 47 percent.)

I’ve mentioned the flaws in the National Election Pool exit polls, the source of the dubious finding that Trump attracted a quarter of the Latino vote. Not only is that a full 7 percentage points lower than what we found at Latino Decisions, but it would also mean Trump outperformed Romney.

We, along with just about every other specialist in Latino politics, know that is simply impossible, given that the Latino electorate rejected Trump from the start of the campaign. We therefore strongly suggest utilizing our Election Eve Poll numbers and not the results of the exit polls.

Even the exits, however, acknowledge that Latino electorate gave a supermajority of its vote to Clinton. In short, Donald Trump achieved victory despite growth in the Latino vote and the lowest level of support among Latino voters on record for any presidential candidate.

Immigration policy has been the dominant policy issue for Latino voters over the past two election cycles, and Trump’s talk of a “wall” — not to mention his derogatory comments regarding Mexican immigrants — helped ensure that immigration remained salient to Latinos in 2016.

Whether 2016 represents a high mark for Latino voter engagement or part of a continuing climb in engagement during presidential races remains to be seen.

What’s clear from our data is that Latinos outperformed expectations in 2016. They helped deny Trump a victory in the popular vote — even though it was not enough, in the end, to swing the election.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and principal at Latino Decisions.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at