Latinos are demographically and politically ascendant in the United States. According to the latest Census figures, an estimated 53 million persons (17% of the total population) in the United States classify themselves as Latino. While over two-thirds (68%) are Catholic, born-again Evangelical Christianity is becoming a growing and significant religious tradition among Latinos. According to some estimates, 15% of Latinos are Evangelicals, that figure increases to 39%, if we consider those who use the terms “born-again” or “Evangelical” regardless of denominational affiliation. In recent years, the Republican Party has sought to court Latino voters by targeting Evangelicals and emphasizing moral values issues. The extent to which these efforts and messages are paying off is being hotly debated. While our own analysis finds that moral values and religion are not defining issues per se for Latino voters, this does not mean that religious beliefs are politically insignificant or that they may not play a more prominent role in future elections.
Is the Republican strategy of targeting Latino Evangelicals an effective tactic? Are Latino Evangelicals open to the policy positions of the Republican Party because they march to a different political beat than the majority of Latino voters? Research by Pantoja (2010), which draws on national surveys and employs advanced statistical analysis, shows that the Republican Party could make significant inroads with Latinos by appealing to their Evangelical base. However, on the issues most salient to Latinos, such as immigration, there are no differences between Latino Catholics and those who are Evangelicals. The failure of the Republican Party to pass comprehensive immigration reform is causing Latino Evangelicals to largely reject appeals by the Republican Party. To illustrate these findings, I will update Pantoja’s 2010 analysis by using national survey data from the impreMedia/Latino Decisions 2012 Election Eve Poll.
Table 1 ranks the policy issues from largest to smallest differences in attitudes between Latino Catholics and those who are born-again Christians.
There are significant differences on vote choice, yet it is noteworthy that over half of Evangelicals voted for President Obama, and Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2012.
When it comes to ranking the importance of various issues (e.g., economy, education, taxes), the differences between Catholics and born-again Christians are negligible.
The most significant finding from the 2012 Election Eve Poll is that it identifies the Achilles’ heel of the Republican Party Evangelical strategy—immigration. On immigration, the experiences and attitudes of born-again Christians and Catholics cluster together; nearly two-thirds of Latino Catholics and Evangelicals have family members or friends who are undocumented. Latinos across the board clearly have a personal stake in immigration issues.
When weighing President Obama and Mitt Romney’s immigration proposals, enthusiasm for Obama increases significantly for Catholics (61%) and Evangelicals (51%). There is little support for Romney’s proposals that generate only a 7% boost among Catholics and 9% among Evangelicals. Could Republicans win the Latino vote if they passed an immigration reform bill that includes a pathway toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants? Yes, 29% of Catholics and 37% of Evangelicals are more likely to vote Republican if the Party took a leadership role in passing immigration reform.
Latino born-again Christians could provide the Republican Party with a critical number of votes to tip close elections in their favor, as they are less likely to vote for Democrats. However, a significant number are not voting Republican because of the Party’s stance on immigration. Waiting for moral issues to ascend to the forefront or for larger numbers of Latinos to convert to Evangelical Christianity is not a politically viable strategy. A more effective strategy is to beat the Democrats to the punch by co-opting and supporting issues that matter most to Latinos, like immigration reform that includes a pathway toward citizenship for undocumented persons. Targeting Latino Evangelicals on moral issues is a strategy from an old playbook that failed to gain Republicans little traction among this electorate. It’s time for Republicans to adopt a new playbook for winning the Latino Evangelical vote.
Adrian Pantoja is professor of political studies at Pitzer College, and a senior analyst at Latino Decisions.