To a striking degree, much of last week's presidential voting was polarized along racial lines. Two-thirds of the white vote went to Ronald Reagan, and 90 percent of the black vote went to Walter Mondale.
But American Hispanics - the nation's fastest-growing major ethnic group - showed signs of becoming a more competitive, two-party constituency.
While blacks grow more consistently Democratic, losing any last long-held ties to the GOP - the party of Lincoln - Hispanics seem to be steadily loosening their traditional ties to the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
President Reagan won more Hispanic votes last week than any other Republican presidential contender in history, and by an apparently healthy margin.
Averaging the various exit polls together gives Reagan roughly 45 percent of the Hispanic vote. This surpasses his 1980 record, when he garnered between 25 and 33 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Otherwise, this was no watershed year for Hispanic Republicanism, which has barely put down any roots outside of southern Florida and New Mexico. Democrats still dominate the Latino leadership.
But the GOP has been working hard in the past two years to gain a foothold in the Latino community, and in the aftermath of the election, it points to presidential exit polls as a historic achievement.
''We've done better than ever before,'' says Tirso del Junco, chairman of the Hispanic Campaign for Reagan-Bush and former chairman of the California Republican Party. ''When the Democratic Party comes into our community, they're going to have to be responsive and really take a good look at why the Hispanic community is leaving them.''
Historically, the Democratic Party is the party of outsiders, the political home of immigrants, ethnic minorities, Roman Catholics, Jews, Southerners, and other constituencies falling outside the established American mainstream.
But, says Prof. Robert Kelley of the University of California at Santa Barbara, ''the tendency in American history is always a kind of falling in to the center.'' As more Hispanics move into the vast American middle class, many cease to feel like outsiders and identify more with Republican values and interests.
Many tie Republican successes in the Hispanic community to a growing Hispanic middle class.
Some leaders and observers of the Hispanic electorate still see it as a one-party constituency at root. Robert Brischetto, research director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio, Texas, cites his own extensive polling, which shows Hispanics voting 2 to 1 for Mondale in Los Angeles and New York City, and 4 to 1 in Texas.
''To me,'' says Raul Yzaguirre, director of the National Council of La Raza, ''the big news is that Hispanics didn't go to Ronald Reagan.'' The Republicans had everything in their favor, Mr. Yzaguirre says, a popular President, a prosperous economy, and a major Republican drive to win Hispanic votes. ''This was the year to do it.'' Yet most Hispanics remained Democratic.
But Mr. Yzaguirre acknowledges that the Democratic grip on the Hispanic vote slipped further last week, after steadily loosening for over a decade. ''It is much more acceptable now for the Hispanics to vote Republican than 10 years ago.''
Dr. del Junco, a Cuban-American who has shifted much of his medical practice to the East Los Angeles barrio, says the most important thing to come out of this campaign is the research that indicates the social issues, including immigration, are far less important to Hispanics than jobs and the economy.
Overall, Hispanic candidates fared well this round. Albert Bustamante of San Antonio, Texas, became the 10th Hispanic member of Congress, and seven more Hispanics were added to state legislatures around the country, to total 109, says Harry Pachon of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.