Can Obama Win the Latino Protestant Vote?
By Gastón Espinosa | October 15, 2012
After John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004, I attended at a day-long seminar at the home of Arianna Huffington called “Rebranding the Democratic Party.” At one point, the former director of Kerry’s outreach to Latino voters addressed the room on the future of his party. If we can’t keep the Latino Republican vote below 40 percent, he said, we won’t win a presidential election in the future.
He was right. Republicans are trying (rather episodically) to make inroads with Latino voters. The U.S. Latino population has soared to 50.4 million and Latinos now make up a quarter of all Democratic voters. In the 2008 election, the U.S. Latino vote (9.5 percent) was almost twice the size of the Jewish, Muslim, and Asian American votes combined. And because Latinos are heavily concentrated in key swing states like Florida and Colorado and electoral rich states like California and Texas, appealing to them is vital to both parties. “We need to do better among Hispanic voters,” said former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour in June. He added, “The Latino vote makes a difference and can make the difference in a number of critical states.”
While Latinos have traditionally been a solidly Democratic voting bloc, the Latino Protestant vote represents the GOP’s best chance to win over a growing share of Latino voters. Although they voted for Clinton and Gore in 1996 and 2000, they flipped and voted for Bush in 2004. The number of Latino Protestants has grown to 10 million; they generally register and vote at higher rates than Latino Catholics; they are around the same size as the Jewish or Asian American electorates (2 percent respectively), and are heavily concentrated in Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, California, and New York. According to the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll and other surveys, the Republican Latino vote increased from 21 to 44 percent from 1996 to 2004 while the Democratic Latino vote simultaneously slipped from 71 to 53 percent. Many scholars argue Bush beat Kerry by a margin of 40 to 57 percent with Latino voters. Given the volatility of the Latino Protestant vote and its growing electoral clout, both parties have good reason to pursue it.
Mitt Romney’s campaign and its “Juntos con Romney” outreach effort are trying to do just that. Last month, Romney made an appeal to Latino voters by participating in a forum in Miami with the Spanish-language channel Univision. “This party is the natural home for Hispanic-Americans,” Romney said at a rally following the event. “Because this is the party of hope and opportunity.” Romney and the nation’s Latino Republican governors—Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada—are also reaching out to the constituency in key swing states. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American, has become a powerful campaigner for Romney, and Rubio’s speech at the Republican National Convention in August was well received.
In 2008, Obama not only won a solid majority of Latino voters, but also was able to reverse the trend of Latino Protestants voting Republican. Contrary to recent scholarship that argues that McCain won the Latino Protestant vote, I argue that Obama won it by a clear margin and even among a plurality of those who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion. He won it because he ran a faith-based centrist campaign; he won over Latinos on both sides of the religious, ideological, and political divides by threading the moral needle of American politics, supporting both a woman’s right to choose and traditional marriage. He also appointed Latino evangelical campaign advisors, promoted faith-friendly public policies, and publicized his own evangelical-sounding conversion narrative. His social justice platform blended the themes of righteousness and justice, something that appealed to Latino Protestants and Catholics alike. And, to win in 2012, he’d wisely do it again.
AN IMPORTANT PATH TO the Latino vote is through the faith community. Latinos are overwhelmingly Christian (93 percent). National surveys have found that 77 percent of registered Latino voters say religion provides a great deal of guidance in their day-to-day living and 65 percent say that a candidate’s personal faith and morals were relevant in their voting decisions. Latino Protestants make up 25 percent of the total U.S. Latino electorate; evangelical and born-again Christians of all denominations make up 37 percent of the Latino Christian electorate. Sociologist Andrew Greeley of the University of Chicago estimates that 600,000 Latinos may be “defecting” every year from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity. Surveys have confirmed that for every one Latino that had “recently returned” to Catholicism, four had recently left it—mostly for evangelical and Pentecostal/charismatic denominations and independent storefront churches. As a result, more than 80 percent of all Latino Protestants are born-again and/or attend an evangelical church.
Obama pursued the Latino vote in part through the faith community. He tapped the Rev. Wilfredo de Jesús, a social justice-oriented Puerto Rican megachurch pastor with the Assemblies of God denomination, to serve as his national Latino Protestant advisor. De Jesús campaigned hard for Obama among Latino evangelicals for 15 months. Obama flew him throughout the nation—financing his airfare, room, board, and even providing a personal driver. De Jesús served as a powerful Obama surrogate in meetings, interviews, and conference calls. His stances in favor of traditional marriage and against abortion helped him appeal to conservative clergy and laity. De Jesús was also vice-president of social justice for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest Latino evangelical civil rights organization in the nation. This gave Obama national visibility and an “inside man” in key segments of the Latino Protestant community and access to many of its 22,300 churches throughout the nation.
Obama also publicly discussed his own spiritual journey and Christian conversion. At the University of Texas at Brownsville in March of 2008, he declared to the nearly 200 Latino Protestant leaders and others present: “I let Jesus Christ into my life … because I learned that my sins could be redeemed and if I placed my trust in Jesus, [and] that he could set me on a path to eternal salvation.” Then, in an act that seemed to seal his public conversion narrative, Obama bowed his head and allowed NHCLC and other Latino evangelical leaders to lay hands on him and pray for him and his campaign, an event that was broadcast over Spanish Christian radio throughout the nation.
Obama also strategically linked his Christian faith to biblical and social justice. He adopted a “Sí se puede” (“Yes, we can”) message, which not only echoed the famous rallying cry of César Chávez’s migrant farm worker’s struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, but also called to mind Chávez’s decision to mobilize the faith community to bring about progressive social change. Obama wrote in La Audacia de la Esperanza (The Audacity of Hope), which was published in Spanish almost 18 months before Election Day: “The church … understood in an intimate way the biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge the powers and principalities … I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death; rather, it was an active, palpable agent in the world.” All of this resonated with Latino evangelicalism’s dual emphases on righteousness and justice, which NHCLC President Samuel Rodríguez defines as the “reconciling message” of Billy Graham and the faith-based “activism” of Martin Luther King, Jr. “It’s good to see a Democratic nominee engage evangelical leaders,” Rodríguez said of Obama in a July 2008 interview. “For too long the Democratic party seemed hostile to evangelicals.” De Jesús argued Obama won the Latino Protestant vote because he “resonated with our people, the Hispanic community and especially the Evangelical community” (italics in original).
Meanwhile, John McCain was not capitalizing on his natural advantages with Latino evangelicals. McCain was a political moderate, the senator of a border state, and the most outspoken Republican supporter of Latinos on Capitol Hill, who had championed comprehensive immigration reform in 2006. But due to the Republican backlash against immigration reform, McCain’s senior advisors felt this was a losing issue and would suppress Republican enthusiasm and turnout. Still, McCain brought Juan Hernández on as his Hispanic outreach director. Hernández was well positioned to help McCain: he was a politically savvy evangelical Republican from Texas who had brokered several meetings between George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox. Hernández sought to aggressively promote McCain to the Latino community, but he stated in our interview that he encountered a brick wall of competing interests and indifference. He noted that McCain actually shot a number of Spanish commercials that did not air. “The Machine,” Hernández lamented, “constantly squeezed out Hispanics … McCain would say I want Hispanics at all of the meetings.” When they weren’t there, McCain would get upset. “‘Where are they?’ ‘Why aren’t they here?’” McCain demanded to know. “Hispanics and their issues were simply lost in a sea of competing concerns,” Hernández said.
While Obama pledged to invest $20 million into Latino outreach, including to the faith community, the McCain campaign decided not to invest any major funds directly into Latino Catholic or evangelical outreach because his advisors told him that it would be a net gain for Obama. When Rodríguez privately asked Hernández how much the McCain camp had given him to reach Latino Protestants, he replied, I don’t have a budget or any staff.
On Election Day, Obama won the U.S. Latino vote by a commanding 67 to 31 percent margin. He swept a majority of Latino women and men across age groups, took 73 percent of Latino Catholics, and won approximately 58 percent of Latino Protestants, a majority of them evangelical. Latinos that voted for Obama did so at much higher rates than they did for Kerry in 2004. Obama won a majority of Latino voters in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and even Florida, and as a result, he won all four states.
The biggest surprise and greatest reward for Obama’s efforts to reach the faith community was his ability to win over a plurality of Latino voters that opposed abortion and gay marriage. He did so because Latinos genuinely believed he was a person of faith and because he publicly declared that he supported traditional marriage. Obama won the Latino Protestant vote, most likely by a margin of 58 to 42 percent for reasons noted in my book,Religion, Race, and Barack Obama’s New Democratic Pluralism. In contrast to Kerry, the Latino Religions and Politics survey (LRAP) in October of 2008 also found that Obama led McCain among the most religious Latinos—those that attended church, prayed, and read the Bible once a week or more. He even led among Latinos who said religion provided a great deal or quite a bit of guidance in their daily living—including evangelicals.
WILL OBAMA REPEAT HIS success with the Latino community in 2012? The polls indicate that a large majority of Latinos (70 percent to 20 percent in latest NBC/WSJ/Telemundo survey) are still likely to vote for him. But Romney only needs to slice off a small percentage of Latinos in a few swing states to eke out a victory. Rodríguez stated in our interview that Romney could gain traction with Protestant Latinos “if he emphasizes his commitment to faith, family, entrepreneurship and a just immigration reform solution.” He also said the GOP candidate needs to “emerge as the defender of religious liberty and ‘la familia,” or traditional marriage. Rodríguez said that Romney has “reached out extensively” to him and Latino evangelicals —including flying out his top staff to meet with Rodríguez in person about their faith and family-friendly policies. Rodríguez also gave the closing benediction on the opening night of the Republican National Convention, an historic first for Latino evangelicals and a coveted spot for any national religious leader.
Obama, Rodríguez said, is also reaching out to the NHCLC, though “not as extensively” or with the same conviction he did in 2008. Perhaps, he implied, this is because he didn’t keep his promise to pass immigration reform in his first year in office and because he changed his view on gay marriage. And perhaps it’s because Obama feels he has already done enough by inviting Rodríguez to pray at his inauguration and join taskforces on fatherhood and abortion reduction.
However, Obama remains vulnerable with Latino Protestant evangelicals, Rodríguez believes, because he is “moving far left on gay marriage, abortion, and gays in the military.” He argues that Latino unemployment, poverty, and deportation rates are “all significantly higher” now than under Bush. There is also the Obama administration’s decision to mandate that certain self-insuring institutions, including Catholic and Protestant ones that also hire and serve people outside of their own tradition, must provide contraception coverage, even though it may violate their religious convictions. This move may prompt a small but potentially important number of Latino voters to stay home or take a second look at Romney.
But Rodríguez also energetically points to Obama’s recent support for the DREAM Act, and the executive order he signed earlier this year, which makes it possible for some undocumented young adults, brought to the U.S. as children, to defer deportation if they meet specific criteria. Still, for some supporters, the move comes too late from the president, who campaigned that he would push through comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office. Despite working for Obama, Wilfredo de Jesús was clearly disappointed with President Obama in our interview. He said, “You can’t say I will push through immigration reform in the first year in office and then make health care, gay issues, and other topics a bigger priority than millions of Latinos suffering throughout the nation.” For this reason, de Jesús said he will not support President Obama in 2012. During his appearance at the Univision forum, Obama had to answer tough questions about his immigration record. “My biggest failure so far is we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done,” Obama told the audience. Now he’s hoping voters will give him another four years to make that pledge a reality, though this time without any promises.
Gastón Espinosa is the Arthur V. Stoughton Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College and co-editor of the Columbia University press series in religion and politics.
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