Exit polls indicate the president-elect out-polled 2012 nominee Romney among Latinos

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 11 Nov 2016 at 3:30 PM

Among the many nuggets of conventional wisdom that President-elect Donald Trump cast aside Tuesday was that his tough rhetoric on restoring law and order to the nation’s immigration system would ignite a massive wave of Hispanic voters who would bury him.

It did not happen.

While Hispanics made up a larger share of the vote than they did four years ago, their share was down in some key swing states, according to exit polls. And Trump actually performed better than 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney among Latinos and black voters.

“People just assume that Latinos are just single-issue voters and are going to vote on immigration, alone,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA. “There are actually a lot of other issues that are important to them.”

According to exit polling, the share of Hispanics in the electorate ticked up from 10 percent to 11 percent, nationwide. Trump won 29 percent of the Latino vote, compared with 27 percent for Romney four years ago. Factoring a larger third-party vote this time, the gap in the Hispanic vote between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton was eight percentage points smaller than President Obama’s margin of victory over Romney.

The story was similar among another key Democratic constituency — black voters. Obama’s margin over Romney exceeded Clinton’s margin over Trump by seven points.

"It reinforces the idea that immigration is not the issue that probably is the main driver of voting," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. "Like a lot of other working-class people, they may have decided they can no longer trust government elites."

Not everyone is willing to concede that Trump over-performed expectations, however. Latino Decisions, a company that measures Hispanic opinion, points to a survey of 5,600 Latinos that it conducted just before the election suggesting that Clinton had the support of 79 percent of the voting bloc, while just 18 percent favored Trump. Those results mirror election returns in 16 counties or precincts where Hispanics make up an overwhelming share of registered voters.

"The exit poll reports of Latino vote are profoundly and demonstrably incorrect," Latino Decisions founders Gary Segura and Matt Barreto wrote on the company’s website this week. "The methodology used for this poll systematically misrepresents all voters of color and this can be demonstrated with actual precinct-level results and with their practices in the last decade."

Regardless of the accuracy of the exit polls, one fact in inarguable — the Hispanic vote was not enough to cost Trump the election, as many Republican consultants had warned and feared. Mehlman said there are a number of counties with high percentages of Latinos that voted for Obama in 2012 but flipped to Trump on Tuesday.

Immigration supporters point to what they regard as a silver lining in the exit polls: While the 13 percent of voters identifying immigration as their top issue went 2-1 for Trump, most voters reject his view on some of the specifics. For instance, 54 percent oppose his signature proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and 70 percent preferred offering legal status to illegal immigrants.

"It’s a straw man argument," Chmielenski said.

The Center for Immigration Studies President Mark Krikorian, whose organization favors lower levels of immigration, said the result is misleading because the poll offered only choices between the stark alternatives of legal status and deportation.

"Those are the false-choice questions that the media always ask," he said. "It’s a joke."

A poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted for the think tank the week before the election indicated that 54 percent believe there has been "too little effort" to enforce immigration laws and that 58 percent believe that the country should require employers to verify the legal status of their workers before illegal immigrants receive work permits and a path to citizenship. Even among Hispanics, 51 percent agreed that has been too little immigration enforcement.

Mehlman said it is not surprising that people favor legalization if the only other choice is a stark one.

"Those have never been the only two items on the menu," he said.

Mehlman said visible, consistent enforcement would provide a strong disincentive to illegal immigration just as Internal Revenue Service audits deter tax cheating. It is unlikely that mass deportations would occur, he said.

"That’s not the way you enforce any civil law," he said.