Opinion writer

CHICAGO — The U.S. Census Bureau released its November voting data and one thing is clear: The so-called Latino Sleeping Giant is still snoozing — fewer than half of all eligible Hispanics turned out to vote in 2012.

After nearly a year of breathless reports about how Latinos were going to trip over themselves to get to the polls and vote against Mitt Romney’s hard-line immigration stance — remember Time magazine’s Spanish-language cover “Yo Decido”? — the reality is less dramatic.

Yes, 11.2 million Latinos turned out to vote in 2012. But these headlines tell a different story: “As Hispanic Vote Lags, Millions of Votes Left on the Table,” “‘Record’ Hispanic Voter Turnout In 2012 a Misnomer, Census Numbers Show,” and “Gains in Hispanic vote fall short of projections.”

Last year I took heat for suggesting that the Latino vote wouldn’t live up to the hype. But the numbers don’t lie.

According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of Latinos casting ballots went down to 48 percent from 49.9 percent in 2008.

Paul Taylor and Mark Hugo Lopez summarized it for the Pew Research Center: “Hispanics continue to punch below their weight. Much was made right after the November election about the clout of the Hispanic vote (by, among others, the Pew Research Center). But the new Census Bureau data show that Hispanics’ turnout rate -- just 48 percent — as far below that of whites (64.1 percent) or blacks (66.2 percent).”

Taylor and Lopez noted that because of population growth, the number of Latinos who voted for president did increase, but the number who were eligible but chose not to vote increased even more — by 2.3 million — from 9.8 million in 2008 to 12.1 million in 2012.

The reason you don’t hear much about these sobering numbers from the Hispanic advocacy organizations — as opposed to how they react with any statistic even remotely suggesting an impending Latino supremacy — is obvious. After all, immigration reform is only in play because Republicans are scared witless that unfavorable Latino voting power will sink their party in upcoming elections.

But how true can this be when fewer Latino voters bothered to vote in a contest featuring an incumbent Democrat and a Hispanically tone-deaf Republican candidate who could never quite get past “self-deportation” than in 2008, when Barack Obama and John McCain — a longtime supporter of immigration reform -- were running?

Yes, Republicans have a Hispanic problem, but it may be less a voting-power dilemma than it is a perception issue.

One big misperception is that Latino voters care foremost about politicians’ stand on immigration, a notion that has been disproved time and again. And even though it is a topic of importance to them, Latinos do not speak with one voice on immigration, as a recent study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press reaffirms.

When asked whether those living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to stay legally, 9 percent of Latinos said “no” and another 6 percent didn’t know. Asked about giving those in the U.S. illegally a way to obtain legal status, 29 percent of Latino respondents said it would be “like rewarding them for doing something wrong” and another 10 percent weren’t sure. Yes, these are minority opinions, but they point to a diversity of thought Latinos are rarely credited with.

Ann Telnaes animation: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticizes GOP immigration policy. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

Another perception is that Republicans hate Hispanics.

Many Latinos see the Republican Party as a mix of a few opportunistic politicians trying to make inroads to win their votes and many xenophobes who believe not only that most Hispanics are living here illegally but that they’re intellectually inferior.

It’s hard to assume otherwise after the controversy over the Heritage Foundation’s estimates on the cost of legalizing the 11 million immigrants living here illegally.

At the same time as some conservative leaders were rushing to register their disapproval with the report — which accounted for costs, but not benefits, of legalization — others were quiet after news outlets reported that one of co-authors of the study had written a Harvard Ph.D. dissertation contending that Hispanics have low IQs that will likely never reach parity with whites and will produce more low-IQ children and grandchildren.

Shout this from the rooftops: Perception, not voting power, is the Republican Party’s biggest Hispanic challenge.