(RNS) The Hispanic vote played a decisive role in the presidential election, just not in the way most people expected.
At first, every major network assumed that the Democrats’ “blue wall,” reinforced by a surging Hispanic electorate, would prove too much for the Trump/Pence ticket to overcome. After all, there were 4 million more Hispanic voters in 2016 than there were in 2012.
Early exit poll data suggested only 19 percent of Hispanics were voting for Trump. But as the night went on, the pollsters and the media were stunned by just how wrong they were.
Among Hispanic voters, Trump outperformed Romney’s 2012 campaign by 2 percentage points nationwide. So how did President-elect Trump manage to do this after his now infamous comments made about Mexican immigrants?
The truth is that Trump’s comments were hurtful to many Hispanics, myself included. Mutual respect is an important part of our culture and Hispanics did vote overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton partially because of it.
However — and this is key — Hispanics are not monolithic. In fact, we find it offensive when pundits and pollsters talk about us like we’re a homogeneous whole, devoid of distinct nationalities, customs, cultures and faiths.
If Australians, Americans and Brits share a language but differ on accent, political history and national identity, shouldn’t we approach Guatemalans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and others with a similar level of sophistication and understanding?
Take, for instance, Cuban-Americans in Florida. Of that community, 54 percent voted for Trump, compared with only 47 percent for Romney in 2012. This is a community that fled communist Cuba and continues to lean conservative to this day. They’ve seen the devastating effects of communism — and its sibling, socialism — firsthand.
Take also the changing religious composition of American Hispanics. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, 1 in 4 Hispanics now identifies as Protestant or evangelical — and that number is rising — while the percentage of Hispanics who identify as Catholic has dropped from 67 percent in 2010 to only 55 percent in 2013. Why is this important? Early indications suggest that two-thirds of the Hispanic vote that broke for Trump came from Hispanic evangelicals.
And finally, as for many other Americans, the No. 1 issue for Hispanic voters was the economy, not immigration as many assumed.
The takeaways for any politician or pundit are many, and they are critically important for either party to understand if they hope to win the composite, Hispanic vote in future elections.
First of all, it is true that Hispanics are a surging voting bloc that might become the deciding “swing vote” in many national and statewide elections in the foreseeable future. We may not have represented the deciding vote in 2016, but we could do so in 2020.
Secondly, unlike many other subsegments of the electorate, we will not rubber-stamp any single party. In fact, President George W. Bush won 40 percent of Hispanics in 2000. Compare that to other voting blocs (i.e., white evangelicals, urban whites, blacks, etc.) and our relative independence is striking.
Thirdly, we are too diverse to categorize as a single, predictable force. What matters to Cuban-Americans is different from what matters to Mexican-Americans.
Politicians must respect our wide-ranging differences and speak to each community with distinction. Anything otherwise is ignorance, and it might even be racism. It is certainly condescending.
And finally, to varying degrees, our cultural values reflect aspects of both parties. As most Hispanics are people of faith — both Catholic and increasingly Protestant — we value the family, the sanctity of life for both the unborn child and the immigrant, and we relate to and defend the marginalized and oppressed.
But we also value the rule of law, legal immigration and a strong economy. These are, after all, the strengths of America that drew many of us here in the first place.
As a leader in the Hispanic Christian community and as a pastor, I like to put it another way: Many Hispanics are longing for a political leader who will finally reconcile the righteousness of Billy Graham with the justice of Martin Luther King Jr.
Whether you’re Hispanic or Anglo, whether you voted for him or for her — now is the time for all Americans to come together and pray for President-elect Trump that he might become just that kind of president — and stand ready to hold him accountable if he doesn’t.
(The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference)