Early numbers suggest higher-than-expected turnout among Hispanic voters in the 2018 midterm elections, spurred in large part by massive grass-roots campaigns led by Latino civil rights organizations that were two years in the making.
The final numbers for 2018 have yet to be tallied, but experts are pointing to figures from several areas with high Latino populations that indicate record participation compared to previous elections, with hopes of building on that success in 2020.
Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster who specializes in the Latino electorate, highlighted turnout in Latino-heavy areas where advocacy groups began ramping up their outreach efforts in 2016 as President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE’s campaign rhetoric focused on immigration.
In El Paso County, where the population is more than 80 percent Hispanic, voter participation in this year’s midterm elections jumped 168 percent from 2014.
And in another Texas jurisdiction, Hidalgo County, which is 92 percent Hispanic, the number of ballots cast for Senate candidates more than doubled the amount from 2014.
While much of that increase can be credited to campaigns like Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) Senate bid and Trump's rhetoric, early engagement with otherwise unlikely voters played a key role, activists said.
"Two years ago, when we realized that the White House had been won by someone who hates immigrants and communities of color, we knew then we had to work very hard to fight this year’s election for the future of our communities," said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a civil rights group focused on Latino and immigrant voter participation.
"To win, we knew that we needed to get to the Latino community in a greater way than we had done before,” he added. “We registered thousands of people. We knocked on thousands of doors to make sure the Latino voting culture in this country changes."
Organizations like Mi Familia Vota and UnidosUS, the country's largest Hispanic civil rights group, focused their efforts on educating Latinos on the voting registration process.
"If you’re a Latino or a Latina, the odds are stacked against you on what someone who is not Hispanic will have to go through to register to vote," said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of UnidosUS.
UnidosUS registered 81,000 people around the country ahead of the 2018 midterms on an outreach budget of around $3 million. In 2012, they registered 75,000 voters.
Other organizations also boasted record levels for 2018.
Voto Latino, a national group dedicated to increasing Hispanic voter participation, said it registered 202,339 residents this year.
Hispanic organizations say they focused their efforts on registration because past experience has shown that even though Latino participation is often lower than other groups, registered Latinos are as likely or more likely to vote than other demographic groups.
That presents both an advantage and a challenge.
While most party structures and establishment PACs spent their money on the general electorate, avoiding investments in Spanish-language advertising or Latino voter participation drives, the main outlier was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said Chuck Rocha, president of Solidarity Strategies, a campaign consulting firm that specializes in Hispanic outreach.
"The DCCC was the only party infrastructure that I saw that made a major investment in people of color and especially Latinos," said Rocha.
The DCCC says it reached out directly to 32 million voters in the 2018 cycle, 8 million of whom were voters of color.
But demographic growth of the Hispanic community is likely to once again surpass voter participation.
One reason for the low participation is that many Latinos fit "all the criteria" of low-engagement voters, said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, deputy vice president for research at UnidosUS.
Hispanics have the youngest electorate of any major demographic group in the United States but tend to have lower income than their white peers. Age and income tend to be reliable predictors of voter participation among all demographic groups.
"Many potential voters in the Latino electorate remain unconvinced, not apathetic," said Martinez de Castro. "For a lot of folks who are working class, and this is true not only of Latinos, change is not as tangible for them all the time."
For working-class voters, taking the time off to register, vote or learn about absentee and early-voting options is more onerous. That makes unlikely voters more susceptible to voter suppression tactics such as last-minute changes in polling locations or ID requirements, said Murguia.
And working-class Hispanics are more likely than other groups to be part of mixed immigration status families, so fear of contact with authorities is also in play.
Many of those challenges are easily overcome with informational campaigns, say activists, but a lack of civic education makes it harder for organizations to approach communities where voting is not already ingrained in the culture.
"We need investment so we can better educate our community about the steps and the process," said Murguia. "It’s not happening even as part of our high school curriculum anymore."
Still, despite the party-level disengagement and the structural challenges, some political campaigns were able to rally the voters that grass-roots organizers have worked to register.
In 2016, Hispanics in Nevada and California helped soften the blow for Democrats in an otherwise disastrous election year for the party, but engagement gaps were glaringly obvious in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
And in a year when Trump used harsh rhetoric on immigration as his closing argument to midterm voters, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) in part based his Senate campaign on positive engagement with Latino voters.
"Rick Scott spent more money on Spanish-language ads than any other entity in America," said Rocha.
Scott invested around $4 million in Spanish-language TV and regularly visited the state's multiple Hispanic communities. He also hired Hispanic campaign consultants to leverage their cultural competency.
"He’s not the first one for Republicans,” said Murguia. “You can start with [former Presidents] Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.”
Scott's Hispanic outreach was modeled after electoral wins that Bush and his brother, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), had in the state.
The tight Senate race between Scott and Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA adviser quits after request to change name of James Webb telescope denied NASA won't rename James Webb Space Telescope despite controversy FAA unveils new system to reduce planes' times on taxiway MORE (D) is likely headed for a recount.
Democrats were generally downbeat about the Florida results, but Hispanic activists see a silver lining in Scott's success.
"When I hear the question with what went wrong when the Democratic Party didn’t win … the way that I see this, we won because the Latino community participated and is engaged," said Monterroso.