America said yes to four more years.
It was a hard-won second victory for President Barack Obama, who was neck-and-neck in the polls as election season came down to the wire.
Obama, who made history in 2008 when he became the first U.S. president of African heritage, tried to hold onto the Oval office amid one of the most bitterly partisan, and tough economic times in the country.
It was also an election in which Latinos and their interests and concerns got more attention than ever – in the media, and by conservative and liberal politicians alike (though not always in a positive way).
The Obama campaign warned voters that his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, would push policies that would favor the rich at the expense of the middle-class and low-income Americans. Obama warned Latinos that a Romney presidency would be hostile to immigrants and Latinos.
In June, Obama announced that he would suspend deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors and who met a strict set of criteria. More than 1 million immigrants are believed to be affected by the initiative, which Romney said he would discontinue if he became president.
Romney ran into problems with Latinos when he took a particularly hard line on immigration during the GOP primaries.
In an effort to appeal to the party’s conservative base, Romney voiced support for the Arizona anti-illegal immigration law, SB 1070, parts of which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as “self-deportation,” in essence making life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they would leave of their own accord.
Romney also aligned himself with some of the nation’s most hard-line proponents of tough immigration policies -- all Republicans -- including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former California Gov. Pete Wilson and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is architect of the Arizona immigration law, as well as similar measures in other states.
Romney had tried to appeal to Latinos, and other voters, by casting Obama as someone who had failed to improve the economy, and whose administration had made things difficult for small business owners.
Latinos apparently responded to the many appeals for their support, with exit polls showing that they seem to have turned out in record numbers, accounting for 10 percent of the electorate. In 2008, when they set a record, they accounted for nine percent of voters.
In Florida, a key state, with 29 electoral votes, Latinos were said to account for about 17 percent of voters who cast ballots – eligible voters make up 19 percent in the Sunshine State.
Exit polls conducted by impreMedia/Latino Decisions nationwide and in 11 key battleground states indicate that Latino voters played a critical role in Obama getting a second term and keeping a Democratic majority in the Senate.
"In all cases, immigration reform and the dramatic distinction between the two parties on the issue was a major driver of Latino voter political choices," said a statement put out by America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group.
The Latino Decisions polls indicate that nationwide and in battleground states Obama won Latino voter support over Romney by historic margins – 72 percent to 23 percent nationwide, including: in Colorado, Obama won Latino voters by 87 percent-10 percent margin; in New Mexico, by a 77 percent-21 percent margin; in Nevada, by an 80 percent-17 percent margin; in Ohio, by an 82 percent-17 percent margin; in Virginia, by a 66 percent-31 percent margin; and in Florida, by a 58 percent-40 percent margin.
Latinos got unparalleled attention in this election because they had simply become too numerous to ignore, numbering more than 50 million, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. That is larger than the entire national populations of Cuba, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic combined.
And a record number – nearly 24 million -- had become eligible to vote, with some 11 million expected actually to do so.
In an election where they were viewed as being a pivotal group, Obama had the advantage with likely Latino voters, with recent polls by Fox News Latino and others showing him leading GOP challenger Mitt Romney with more than 70 percent of their support, compared to about 21 percent for the former Massachusetts governor.
For Latinos, the stakes of this election were particularly high – choose a president who has vowed to keep improving the employment rate and to keep safety nets for those who remain unemployed or underemployed, or Romney, who also vowed to improve the economy but who has made clear his misgivings about government programs that he views as wasteful and discouraging self-reliance?
Many Latinos supported Obama's healthcare reform bill. Romney had voiced opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Hispanics continue to be the most likely to be uninsured, with more than 40 percent going without health coverage in 2011, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this year. Gallup said it was the highest portion of uninsured it had recorded among any key group since it began tracking in 2008.
And for Latinos who considered immigration a priority issue, the presidential election presented a choice between an avowed proponent of hard-line immigration policies and a president who campaigned in 2008 on the promise of reforming immigration, but did not do so. What is more, to the frustration of many Latinos, a record number of immigrants – most of them Latinos – have been deported under Obama than any other president.
“Latinos will expect to be supported in education, healthcare and immigration,” said Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “With another Obama presidency, there will be a demand to stop all deportations and to pass immigration reform. There will be a demand that he make good on his promises from the first term.”
Gabe Gonzalez, the national campaign director for the Campaign for Community Change, agrees.
“I take President Obama at his word, with one caveat – we have to make sure that he does what he says he’ll do,” Gonzalez said. “If there is one thing we Latinos have learned, it’s that we get the respect and political power that we demand.”
Craig Romney, Mitt Romney’s son, told Fox News Latino just before the election: “We’ve seen what Barack Obama’s policies will do, we know those are not working, if he is reelected we can expect more of the same over the next four years."
"I’ve been privileged to be able to travel across the country and represent my father to the Hispanic community and one of the things I’ve heard over and over is that people have been struggling in this economy," said Romney, a fluent Spanish-speaker who did Latino outreach for his father's campaign. "My dad, he has a plan to get the economy back on track and that includes getting Hispanics back to work, one of the communities that have been hit hardest in this economy...I think over 2 million Hispanics have gone into poverty over the past four years."
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates for more lenient immigration policies, said: “Today our nation witnessed the strength of democracy in action. An extraordinary number of voters, including record numbers of Latino, Asian and New American voters, went to the polls clamoring for practical solutions that honor our values and move our nation forward."
“The message was clear: President Obama must fulfill his campaign promise and work with congressional leaders to create a common-sense immigration process that treats all people with dignity," Noorani said. "And Republicans must choose pragmatism over extremism on immigration, putting forward practical solutions that create a roadmap to citizenship for aspiring Americans."
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente