For much of the end of the 21st century, Democrats could easily be accused of ignoring the faith-based voter as much as Republicans can for manipulating them. At times, both sides have been wrong, but one reality has emerged; the faith-based voter cannot be ignored in Presidential politics. Entering into the scene over the last two decades has been the ever increasing Latino Evangelical vote, a block that both sides would do well to get on their side come November.
While not a decisive factor, the Latino Evangelical swing vote has helped elect a President in the last two cycles by casting 58 percent of their vote for Bush in 2004, then casting 57 percent of their votes for Obama in 2008. With the massive surge in population and continuing trends in voter registration, this block could again impact the outcome in 2012. Key swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico have seen surges in Hispanic population. Lest we forget the “grand jewel,” Florida, that also happens to house some of the largest Latino Evangelical mega-churches in the country.
Some have pointed to the GOP’s harsh stance on Immigration reform as contributing to the shift in votes between ’04 and ’08. But, with the continued lack of progress from the Obama administration on immigration, support may have diminished. “Even though the President and the Democrats in Congress failed to move this forward when they had control of both houses and failed to utilize their ‘political capital’ the Republicans have failed to reconcile this issue as it relates to Latino’s,” said Richard Martinez, Jr. President, Nehemiah Leaders a national Christian-Latino Business Association. “Their hard-line stance in opposition used to pacify their constituency prohibits them from gaining support.”
However, the GOP nominee could make a difference. Evangelicals as a whole have been struggling with the prospect of supporting a Mormon candidate. Gilbert Feliciano of Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin Illinois summarized the view of most Evangelicals; Mormonism is “an unbiblical form of Christianity.” Still others – such as Pastor Luz Santiago – think “To me it’s not about religion, it’s about what is best for our country and our people.”
“This is part of the reason why Santorum is still alive politically,” said Martinez. “People have to understand that there are two strong wings within the Republican Party: ‘Fiscal Conservatives’ (who may not have a problem voting for Romney) and ‘Social Conservatives’ (who will be hard pressed to support Romney). I believe that if Romney is the nominee, Social Conservatives and Evangelicals may sit this one out, which unfortunately would give the President a pathway to an easy reelection.”
Martinez chimes in on a political reality that could hurt the GOP. When successful, Republicans have had candidates that could unite both the fiscal and social conservative voting blocks of their party. Regan and Bush were great examples of this by being able to relate directly with Evangelicals and social conservatives, while still holding firmly to fiscal conservatives. Obama was able to chip away at the faith-based block by speaking openly about his Christianity, while McCain – unlike Bush – couldn’t seem to connect. This year’s GOP primaries have shown Santorum to be the leading Evangelical candidate who has done repeatedly well within southern Bible-belt states. Yet Santorum’s stance on immigration continues to hurt him with Latinos.
In 2008, I asked many of my fellow Evangelicals what mattered most to them. If it was worse if “Carlos and Hector” could get married, or if over a quarter of their congregation was deported. Most of them answered “both would be bad.” Yet the Latino Evangelical vote swung to a pro-choice candidate that has openly embraced marriage equality because he stood with them on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Fast forward to 2012, and I found that for Latino Evangelicals key social conservative issues have not changed. Among them are “Religious Liberties, Pro-Life and Sanctity of Marriage,” but immigration reform especially the plight of the undocumented is seen through the lenses of faith and continues to have a strong impact on how they intend to cast their votes. When asked if the continued stance of the GOP frontrunners on immigration would impact Latino Evangelicals decisions at the polls, Feliciano told us, “Yes, biblical immigration reform and the GOP’s views are worlds apart.”
Conservative Latino Evangelicals are still predominantly Republican, but the harsh GOP rhetoric on immigration could drive them again to Obama in November. “We really look like Republicans on paper, but they don’t want us,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has launched its own voter-registration drive in Evangelical churches around the country. “The Democrats don’t look like us on paper, but they really want us.”
While November is still a long way away, Latino Evangelicals continue to be a driving force on the issue of immigration reform and could be the very push the GOP leadership needs to get them to change their views. To that I say- “Amen.”
Jose Cruz is the editor of OurTiempo.com worked in the Clinton White House and on three Presidential campaigns. He is the founder of ImmigrationPAC a pro-comprehensive immigration reform Federal Polical Action Committee and active political commentator.