According to national Election Day exit polls, Hispanics were 10 percent of the American electorate, a one-percentage point increase from 2008. In key Western states like Colorado, where Hispanics represent 14 percent of voters, or Nevada, where they are 18 percent of voters, or Pennsylvania, where Hispanic voters increased from four to six percent, and even in the Midwest, where the Hispanic share went from three percent to four percent, the Hispanic vote was even more important.
Those increases may seem small, but this year the preference among Hispanics for the White House, at the least, was so lopsided that even a small percentage increase was statistically significant in deciding the outcome.
This presidential election demonstrated that Hispanics are also a committed voting bloc. It will be several months before turnout numbers for 2012 are solidified, but it is likely that high turnout among Hispanics was key to President Obama’s victory.
The story these statistics do not tell, though, and what was missing from the 2012 campaign, was a focus on the individuals behind the numbers. These personal stories have a lot to offer candidates, the media, and our country. They could be instructive, if we set the data aside and listen.
Lawmakers who do not specifically address the struggles of the Hispanic community will, I believe, suffer in the mid-term election in 2014 and two years later in the presidential.
A portion of the Hispanic electorate were immigrants who left their homeland in search of a better life, worked to provide for their families once they got here, and fought to overcome unfair stereotypes that persist even though they have lived by the law, paid taxes for decades and contributed to our country in countless ways. Candidates casting about to try to find what was wrong with the U.S. should have asked these immigrants what was right with it: why is the American Dream still so strong? What made America a prize worth enduring such sacrifices?
A discussion of what made America worth the effort would reveal what is worth preserving, or renewing. These voters, of course, also understand first-hand the difficulties of the U.S. immigration system, which puts them in a unique position to offer solutions to one of the country’s most important and divisive problems.
Another portion of Latino voters are second-, third-, or fourth-generation Hispanic Americans. Like newly naturalized Hispanics they are proud of their immigrant heritage, but their struggles may be more similar to their non-Hispanic neighbor. For them, the past few years have been consumed with how to balance the family budget, find good schools and keep affordable healthcare. These voters hardly fit most stereotypes of the Hispanic community and for that reason their voice went unheard during the campaign.
The caricatures some candidates portrayed — the undocumented immigrant coming to the U.S. to live on the public dole rather than to provide a better life for his or her family — was not only offensive, it left Hispanics’ broader concerns unaddressed. And while small scope solutions to immigration might have kept Hispanics in the Democratic camp this year, they will not in the future.
Hispanic Americans will hold all lawmakers accountable, especially on immigration. It’s time for real, long-term reforms.
The 113th Congress must now get to work. It can start by first making a concerted effort to find a deeper understanding of the Hispanic community. The worries, ideas and opinions of Hispanic Americans reveal critical lessons that must be learned. Stories of how immigrants came to this country, the struggles they faced to get here, why they love America, and what they can offer it deserve to be shared, not only because sharing them will make it easier for non-Hispanics to understand Hispanic Americans — and get past caricatures and stereotypes — but because within these stories are the ideas, inspiration, and solutions for how to strengthen America, its economy and its families.
More than 50,000 Hispanic Americans turn 18 every month — these young people will be watching and, and as we saw this election, voting.
Randy Falco is the CEO of Univision Communications.