Will Hispanic Immigrants Vote for the Democrats or Republicans?

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Ms. Althoff is a Post-Doc Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She also teaches about immigration for the sociology department at DePaul University. She earned her Ph.D. in sociology in Germany, at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

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Should Democrats be worried that recent Hispanic immigrants will vote for the GOP? The debate about immigration raises this vital question, especially with regard to Latino renewalists, that is, Hispanic evangelicals 1 Without a doubt this ethnic-religious group will play a decisive role in the presidential election in 2008. Does the fact that Latino renewalists are strongly anti-abortion, anti-homosexual and pro-family mean that they will prefer the GOP? On the one hand, Hispanics have traditionally gravitated to the Democratic Party. On the other, the fact is Latinos are converting to evangelical Christianity at a high rate.

In the history of the United States, ethnicity, religion, and immigration have played an important role in how political participation and party preferences are constituted. The new immigrants from Latin America are no exception. However, combining religious affiliation with political party preferences, it turns out that these recent immigrants cannot be put into neat camps of Republican and Democratic voters. The fact that most Latinos are Roman Catholic and place an emphasis on family values, does not mean that they are politically passive and therefore vote Republican. At the same time even though it is true that the Democratic party has a stronghold among Latino Catholics, there is a growing flock of former Roman Catholics converting to Catholic Charismatic or Protestant Evangelical Christianity, faith traditions that are usually identified with Republicans.

Another reason why linking political party preferences with the Latino vote is a tricky issue has to do with the multiple identities of Latinos. The label ‘Latino’ (as well as ‘Hispanic’), was mainly coined by the US society as an ethnic category; officially it was used for the first time as a census question in 1980. It does not take into consideration the huge variety that exists among Latin Americans in terms of nationalities, ethnicities, and religious affiliation. This variety of national backgrounds transcends, for historical reasons, party preferences. For example, Cubans, especially the generation that came to the US during the sixties and seventies, usually favor the Republican Party. 2 In fact, some Cubans of that generation opted for a political career within the Republican Party, in order to appeal to their strongly anti-communist and accordingly anti-Castro base. This phenomenon, using parties to advance ethnic interests, can also be observed among other historic immigrant groups, such as the Irish, and the Polish. Cubans, are, however, only a tiny, even though a strong, minority in the political landscape of the US. 

What about the presence of Latino renewalists and their political clout? First, a few numbers illustrate the dramatic presence of renewalist Christianity among both Protestant and Catholic Latinos. The Pew Hispanic Center study Changing Faithsreports that 67.6 % of the Latino respondents, regardless of the time spent in the US, identified as Catholics (p. 9). The most striking figure is that of all the Latino Catholics interviewed, 54 % identified as being Catholic-Charismatic (p. 5). With regard to immigration and religion, it merits attention that more than two-thirds (74%) of Latino Catholics are immigrants, that is, foreign born. It is precisely among the foreign born Latinos that the Catholic Charismatic presence is very pronounced. According to Pew, “Foreign-born Latino Catholics … are much more likely (58% vs. 43%) to be charismatic than native-born Latinos.”

What are the political party preferences of Catholic and Protestant renewalists? In general the Pew study points out that “Latino evangelicals are twice as likely to be Republicans as Latino Catholics.” Another Pew study that examined the 2004 presidential elections notes that “Republican gains have been greatest among Protestant Hispanics especially those who consider themselves evangelical Christians.”3 Interestingly, Latino Catholic conservatives, a group which includes the large portion of Catholic Charismatics, favor the Democratic party. In other words, conservative ideology does not automatically translate into support for the Republican Party. With regard to by far the largest group of Latin American immigrants, Mexicans, Democrats enjoy a sizeable advantage among Mexican Catholics (49% vs. 14%). “However, among Mexican evangelicals the partisan split goes the other way (47% for Republicans and 24% for Democrats).”

Three findings further complicate the issue of Latino faith and party affiliation: First, among Latinos in general, the Republican Party has been held partly responsible for what Latinos perceive to be the negative consequences of the immigration debate. 4 Second, the 2007 Pew Study asked the respondents, “Which party could do a better job of dealing with immigration?” Here Latino evangelicals favored the Democratic party. Even though they did so only by a 2% margin (38% vs. 36%), the statistic would appear to be a powerful indicator for the future. Many Latino Evangelicals are directly affected by policy changes, because they are mainly first generation immigrants.

In addition, the intergenerational composition of many Latino families (parents who are foreign-born and might not posses documentation, and children who are born in the United States) suggests that political opinions involving immigration issues contain an important component of future Latino party preferences. Third, contradicting this statement to a certain extent, is the information provided in an earlier article on Latinos and Political Party Affiliation, that used data from a 2002 Pew Study, which concluded: “Younger [Latino, A.A.] respondents, controlling for all other variables, were significantly more likely to say they affiliated with the Republican Party rather than the Democratic Party, as were noncitizens.” 5 Here we have to ask to what extent the current debate has changed party preferences.

It is hard to predict how the changes in the religious landscape will play out in the presidential elections in 2008. It seems however not imprudent to predict that the Democratic Party in one respect holds a critical advantage (at least in the short-run). Latino Catholics still outnumber Latino Protestants to a large extent, and these Latino Catholics prefer by and large the Democratic Party over the GOP. The activism of the Catholic Church in fostering a pro-immigrant policy reform, more or less directly supports the voting base of the Democratic Party. This is because of the close connection of the Catholic Church with other pro-immigrant network organizations used to mobilize Latinos politically. Pro-immigrant networks turned their efforts into large campaigns of citizenship and voter registration among Latinos, often using the infrastructure of Catholic parishes. These new citizens and registered voters are much more likely to vote for the Democratic Party, instead of voting Republican, because of the large percentage of Latino foreign-born Catholics.

In the long run, however, the Republican Party may benefit from the conversion of Catholic Hispanics to Protestantism. This would then in turn transform the former historic ethnic-religious advantage of the Democratic Party among Latino Catholics. Interestingly, this polarization was already visible during the 2004 presidential campaign. Another, even more likely scenario is perhaps that the disappointment with immigration reform will convince Latino renewalists to embrace a passive approach to politics, with no voting gains either for the Republicans or Democrats.

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    1 “Renewalist” is an umbrella term that is borrowed here from a recent Pew Study (2007). It refers to Protestant Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Catholic Charismatics. According to Pew “among Latino Protestants, nearly one-third (31%) are members of classic pentecostal denominations and one-fourth (26%) are charismatics” (p.32). The term “Evangelical Protestants” includes Pentecostals, since Pew considers in this category born again or evangelical Christians. Note that this categorization differs from others; e.g. many US-Evangelicals do not consider Pentecostals as part of the Evangelical landscape. For further clarification on the use of these terms see Pew Hispanic Center and The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Changing Faith: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion. 2007:10, 30.

    2 Historic events that are responsible for this were mainly the failed Bay of Pigs invasion during the John F. Kennedy administration, and in recent years the Elián González tragedy, happening during the Clinton administration. In 1996, the six year old boy who was caught in a custody battle between his father in Cuba and his relatives in Miami. He was finally returned to Cuba and his father. Both incidents strongly damaged the image of the Democratic Party among Cuban-Americans. See also footnote 5.

    3 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The 2004 Political Landscape. Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized. November 5, 2003: 23. http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/196.pdf

    4 Pew Hispanic Center (2006) 2006 National Survey of Latinos: The Immigration Debate. July 13, 2006: 1. http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/68.pdf

    5 Dutwin et al (2006) “Latinos and Political Party Affiliation”, Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 27(2): 135-160, here p. 148. The article continues: “Also, as shown in nearly all other Latino party identification studies, Cubans are far more likely to be Republican. Compared to other Latinos, Mexicans were also found to be more Republican”. p. 148.