GOP's Latino Problem
conventional wisdom holds that Latinos in America are becoming less Catholic
and more evangelical. Politically, that is supposed to mean less Democratic
and more Republican.
the past year, the wisdom has been purveyed at length by the Economist.
Its July 18, 2009 number, “Separated Brothers: Latinos and Religion” argued
that these Latinos are abandoning Catholicism because immigrants in
particular find evangelical churches more culturally appealing. Not only are
the services in Spanish, but they are also performed “with the cadences,
rhythms, innuendos and flow familiar from the mother country.”
Then, in the January 9
issue, “The power of America’s fastest-growing minority” noted with surprise
the apparent growth in support for Democrats among Latinos, as evidenced by
their crucial role in helping Barack Obama carry Colorado, Florida, Nevada,
and New Mexico in 2008. How could that have happened, when Latinos are
“culturally conservative, strongly religious, family-oriented and with a
long and distinguished tradition of service in America’s armed forces”?
Aren’t Latinos increasingly evangelical, and therefore increasingly
answer is no.
While it is true that the Catholic proportion of the Latino population has
declined from 66 percent to 60 percent over the past two decades, the
evangelical proportion has also declined, from 25 percent to 22 percent. And
while the proportion of Latinos preferring the Democratic Party shrank from
41 percent to 35 percent, the proportion preferring the GOP dropped from 24
percent to 12 percent.
numbers come from the 2008 Trinity American Religious Identification Survey
(ARIS), and were released in March in a report entitled U.S. Latino
Religious Identification 1990-2008: Growth, Diversity and Transformation
by Barry A. Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, and myself. In disproving the
conventional wisdom, they beg a number of questions about what is really
happening in the American Latino community, and why.
The first thing to bear
in mind is that since 1990, the adult Latino population has more than
doubled, from 15 million to 31 million. Of the 31 million, more than half
were born outside of the United States. Given this growth, the actual number
of Latino Catholics has almost doubled, from 10 million to 18 million, while
the number of evangelicals—or, strictly speaking, non-Catholic Latino
Christians—has increased too, at about the same rate, from 3.6 million to
almost seven million.
what of the six million Latinos who do not identify as Christians? Most of
them (3.8 million) are Nones: those who when asked “What is your religion,
if any?” answer “None.” (The balance belong to a non-Christian faith,
decline to answer, or say they don’t know.)
with the Nones in the rest of the American population, the proportion of
Latino Nones has doubled since 1990. All in all, Trinity-ARIS shows that the
major shift in Latino religious identification has been this growth among
the Nones—up from six percent to 12 percent of the Latino population as a
Contrary to the conventional wisdom as well, Trinity-ARIS suggests that
U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to defect from Catholicism than recent
immigrants. Indeed, monolingual Spanish-speaking Latinos are twice as likely
to be Catholics as monolingual English-speaking Latinos: 66 percent versus
These findings suggest
that it is not immigrants who are joining evangelical congregations because
of a more “Latino” style of worship but rather second- and third-generation
Latinos who are doing what a significant number of acculturated American
Catholics have done since the 19th century: become Protestants.
Given the constant ratio (2.6:1) of Catholic to evangelical Latinos over the
past two decades, how to explain the growing margin by which they prefer the
Democratic Party? If the entire Latino population is included, this growth
in partisanship is modest, from a 17-point (41-24) Democratic advantage in
1990 to a 23-point one (35-12) in 2008. But considering only those who
expressed a party preference, the gap doubled, from 26 points (63-37) to 50
During this period, non-Catholic Latino Christians have divided their
partisanship evenly—preferring Republicans over Democrats by just 33 percent
to 32 percent in 1990 and 23 percent to 22 percent in 2008. By contrast,
Latino Catholics have gone from preferring Democrats over Republicans by
less than 2-to-1 to over 4-to-1 (in percentage terms, from 43-23 to 37-9).
Meanwhile, among the Nones, the Democratic preference went from 2-1 to over
5-1 (32-16 to 41-8). In short, Latino evangelicals did nothing to offset the
growth in Democratic partisanship among Catholics and Nones.
It is important to note
that partisan preference has been shrinking in the Latino population
generally. The proportion of those preferring either the Democratic Party or
the GOP declined from 65 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2008. This was not
the result of a growth in the proportion of self-described independents,
which remained constant (27 percent to 28 percent).
Rather, it had to do with a threefold increase among those who declined to
identify themselves politically at all—from eight percent to 25 percent of
the Latino population. These almost certainly are new immigrants who have
not had time to learn the American political system and place themselves
explains the marked shift away from the GOP among politically identified
part, this reflects the growth of the Nones, who regardless of race or
ethnicity have become a solid Democratic voting bloc. It also has to do with
the Republican Party’s embrace of anti-immigrant politics.
To be sure, George W.
Bush made a good-faith effort to bring Latinos into the GOP fold, beginning
as governor of Texas. Bush was personally popular among Texas Latinos, and
as president sought comprehensive immigration reform. As a result, he won
some 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.
However, the rejection of his immigration plan by his own party pushed
Latinos away, and in 2008, two-thirds voted for Barack Obama over John
McCain, himself a rare congressional Republican sympathetic to comprehensive
As of this year, just
three of the 26 Latinos in the House of Representatives are Republicans—all
of them Cuban-Americans from South Florida. The only Latino Republican in
the Senate, Florida’s Mel Martinez, retired in 2009 before finishing his
term. While GOP senatorial nominee Marco Rubio will restore this Latino seat
if he wins in November, that would still leave Latino Republicans elected to
national office confined to their Floridian stronghold.
Meanwhile, passage of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law in the spring has only
confirmed Latinos’ sense that they are not welcome in the party of Lincoln.
But even if they were—even if the GOP somehow did a U-Turn on immigration
policy—it would face an uphill struggle demographically.
According to the 2010 Statistical Abstract produced by the U.S.
Census Bureau, more than one-third of Latinos are under the age of 18—the
highest proportion among the major ethnic and racial groups. Recent election
results show young voters skewing towards the Democrats, and that tendency
is even more pronounced in the Latino population.
Moreover, Trinity-ARIS found that young Latinos are more likely to be Nones
than the rest of the Latino population, as likely to be Catholic, and less
likely to be evangelical. So even if Republicans hold their own among young
Latino evangelicals, this is a shrinking segment of the Latino population.
Finally, there remains that mostly new immigrant quarter of the population
that can be expected to enter the political system in the coming years.
Given that they are disproportionately young and Catholic, and in all
likelihood Spanish-speaking, the odds of their emerging as Democrats rather
than Republicans are very high.
Currently, among politically engaged Latinos, 47 percent prefer the
Democratic Party and 16 percent, the GOP. Expect the gap to widen.