It’s one of the questions that has been asked again and again this election year: Will the sleeping giant that is the Latino vote wake up this time and play a crucial role in deciding who the next president of the United States will be?
Early voting data from a number of key battleground states – Florida, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina – suggests that the sleeping giant is awake and roaring.
“The sleeping giant is awake,” Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a political analyst with Florida-based Political Pasión, told Fox News Latino. “And I think we have Donald Trump to thank for that.”
Experts say that the Republican presidential nominee’s rhetoric on immigration has mobilized Hispanics in a way that has never been seen before. And while most Latinos seem to be voting for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, she is not what is driving them to the polls in record numbers.
“The reason we’re seeing such an increase in Hispanic voters so far is because they are voting against a candidate instead of for a candidate,” Perez-Verdia said.
If early voting numbers are accurate, it would be a major shift for the demographic — which has traditionally stayed home on Election Day. Of the eligible 24 million eligible Latino voters in 2012, less than half (48 percent) showed up to vote — a figure that has remained relatively unchanged over the last four presidential elections.
But this year may be different, experts say.
In 2016, there is a record 27 million eligible Latino voters. And both parties have made concerted efforts to win Hispanic voters in states from Florida to Arizona. Groups like the conservative Libre Initiative and the Democratic-leaning Latino Victory Project have also taken it upon themselves to register Latino voters.
Experts argue, however, that it is not just in states with large Hispanic populations that the voting bloc could play a decisive role. In close battleground states – where the Electoral College votes could be won or lost by only a few percentage points – Hispanics could also play a critical role.
“Look at North Carolina, which [President Barack] Obama lost in 2012 by a very slim margin,” Joe Trippi, a political strategist and frequent Fox News Channel contributor, told FNL. “In 2012, Hispanics who voted early made up about 1.2 percent of the electorate and already they make up 1.8 percent of early voters. While that may not seem like a huge change, in a close election they may be making a huge difference.”
At this point in 2008, Latinos accounted for 9.6 percent of early voters, while this year that percentage has risen to 14.1 percent of all early ballots cast. Key states are seeing a similar trend: In Georgia in 2012, only 0.9 percent of early ballots cast at this point came from Latinos. That number has almost doubled this year to 1.7 percent.
Even in states that do not note race or ethnicity on voter registration, the early voting data appears to suggest high turnout among Hispanics.
In Nevada’s Clark County – home to Las Vegas and where the population is 30.6 percent Latino – registered Democrats have now returned over 72,000 more ballots than registered Republicans. Traditionally, whoever wins Clark County wins the Silver State’s six electoral votes.
If Hispanics do end up making a big impact this election — and they vote for Democrats in large numbers, the Republican Party may have a bit of soul searching to do.
Following Republican Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the GOP conducted an autopsy report where they concluded that the party needed to tone down its rhetoric on immigration and be more diligent about trying to connect with Latinos and other minority groups. And while early this election season it seemed like they were taking their own advice (i.e. former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential run), the candidacy of Trump and his hardline stance toward immigration put the GOP’s plans into a tailspin.
“I don’t know if they will be able to appeal to Latinos in the future because the affinity for Trump proves that the Republican base wants these tough polices on immigration,” Trippi said. “Latinos’ feelings on these issues are completely at odds with the Republican base that Donald Trump appeals to.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.