Campaigns Battle for Latino Evangelical Vote

October 9, 2008 at 6:45 am 1 comment

latino-evangelicals.jpgA few weeks ago, Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s former chief strategist, paid a visit to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a man some have dubbed his Latino alter ego.

As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC–which includes some 18,000 evangelical churches across the country–Rodriguez is known as a powerful orator and a politically savvy operator. He also sits at the juncture of two groups that Rove has courted assiduously on behalf of the Republican Party: Latinos and evangelicals. “If you’re the Hispanic Karl Rove, then does that make me the Anglo Sam Rodriguez?” Rove asked as they sat down for breakfast at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento.

For the next 45 minutes, the two discussed Republican outreach to Latinos. “We both believe that Hispanics are natural traditionalists and conservative, at least socially,” says Rodriguez, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate. Though that would appear to align them with the GOP, the party’s shrill rhetoric on illegal immigration has alienated many. “The Republican Party significantly needs to mend some fences with the Hispanic community,” Rodriguez says he told Rove; the GOP strategist agreed, Rodriguez says. “They had an opportunity to fix this, and they didn’t.”

Rove has good reason to worry. Evangelicals are one of the fastest growing segments of the Latino community. In 2004, they represented about one-third of the Hispanic electorate (up from one-quarter in 2000), and 63 percent voted for Bush–the first time on record that a Republican presidential candidate won the Latino evangelical vote. In fact, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the group accounted almost entirely for Bush’s increased share of the overall Hispanic vote, which grew from about 35 percent in 2000 to roughly 40 percent in 2004. Yet the Republican nominee this time around, Senator John McCain, appears to be lagging among Latino evangelicals. Though there aren’t many public polls on their preferences, a Pew Hispanic Center survey this summer found that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, was leading among non-Catholic Latinos–the vast majority of whom are evangelical–by nearly two-to-one (he was leading almost three-to-one among Hispanics as a whole). “The Republican party should not take us for granted,” says the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, an NHCLC executive board member who voted for Bush twice and now backs Obama. “We are a force to be reckoned with.”

Latino evangelicals are a distinctive demographic. They tend to be more affluent, more educated and more acculturated than other Hispanics. They’re also more likely to be citizens and more likely to vote. “They punch above their weight when it comes to electoral impact,” says Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Politically, they tend to be highly conservative on social issues like abortion and gay marriage–in fact, more conservative than white evangelicals, according to various studies–but liberal on economic matters, such as publicly funded health care. They’re also less driven by wedge issues than their Anglo counterparts. Latino evangelicals “tend to look at a candidate in a more holistic fashion,” weighing positions on matters as diverse as high-school dropout rates and foreign policy, says Gaston Espinosa, a professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Having said that, abortion and the same-sex marriage issue are very important.”

This year, the trend lines are disconcerting for Republicans. Bush was an appealing figure to Hispanic evangelicals–full of religious ardor, devoted to a conservative “life” agenda and appreciative of Latino culture. Yet many of them have soured on him as a result of the economic crisis and the war in Iraq. Moreover, GOP stridency on illegal immigration has made the party appear anti-Hispanic. The platform Republicans adopted at their convention didn’t help. It called for declaring “English as the official language in our nation,” and with regard to immigration, it emphasized border security and rejected “en masse legalizations.” Rodriguez uses adjectives like “xenophobic,” “nativist” and “anti-immigrant” to describe it. McCain has struggled in this environment. Though he championed immigration reform for years, he dialed back his support during the primaries. While he inspires evangelicals with his stances on abortion and gay marriage, he falls flat on economics. And unlike Bush, he’s loath to discussing his faith (he was raised as an Episcopalian) openly.

Democrats, on the other hand, are in a stronger position than usual. Like American voters generally this year, Latino evangelicals have more confidence in Democratic approaches to issues like the economy and health care. And many have responded favorably to Obama’s support for faith-based initiatives and his ease in talking about his religious beliefs. The sticking point, of course, is his defense of legalized abortion, though he has sought to neutralize that by stressing the importance of reducing the number of abortions. “Obama has run a brilliant campaign,” says Espinosa, who plans to release the results of a survey on Hispanic (including Protestant) voter preferences next week. “It helps to allay fears among Latino evangelicals. Many are leaning Democratic anyway. They’re looking for a reason to vote Democratic.”

Obama has been aggressive in reaching out to Hispanic evangelicals, according to numerous pastors interviewed by NEWSWEEK. He has met with key religious figures, and attended a breakfast with 200 Latino pastors in Brownsville, Texas earlier this year. He and his surrogates participate in regular conference calls with church leaders. And his campaign has organized faith-focused town halls aimed at the Hispanic religious community. The McCain campaign hasn’t been as active, according to the pastors. But Hessy Fernandez, a McCain spokeswoman, says that “in terms of reaching out to Hispanic evangelicals, we usually meet with the major organizations from time to time” and that evangelicals “know where John McCain stands” on issues like traditional marriage and immigration.

A month out from the election, many Latino evangelicals are still grappling with their presidential pick. “I’ve never been more conflicted in my life,” says Alejandro Mandes, national director of Hispanic ministries for the Evangelical Free Church of America, which has roughly 350,000 members nationwide. “Social justice for me is number one,” he says. “But if I can’t guarantee justice for infants [by opposing abortion], what hope is there for anybody else?” That quandary has split some national organizations down the middle. Delegates of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, an evangelical advocacy organization, recently voted on whom to endorse for president. The outcome: 53 percent chose McCain, and 47 percent sided with Obama. Rodriguez’s organization, the NHCLC, has its own divisions. While the Rev. Mark Gonzalez, the group’s vice president for governmental affairs, backs McCain, De Jesus, the organization’s vice president for social justice, supports Obama.

De Jesus’s endorsement was a coup for the Illinois senator’s campaign. The senior pastor of Chicago’s 4,500-member New Life Covenant Ministries–one of the biggest Latino evangelical churches in the country–De Jesus says that in past presidential elections, he opted for Republicans because of the “two hot buttons” of abortion and marriage. Those issues “continue to be on the forefront,” he says. “But the trends are changing. Not that the buttons are changing. But we’ve elevated other issues like poverty and immigration.” When De Jesus met Obama in person at the Brownsville gathering this year, he laid hands on the senator, prayed with him and sat down to discuss a variety of topics. “That was the turning point right there, hearing his heartbeat on issues important to us,” says De Jesus. “Although we don’t see eye to eye on certain issues, we can break bread and tackle some other issues that are hot for us.” These days, De Jesus is traveling the country on behalf of Obama, cultivating support in battleground states like Florida and Colorado.

Rodriguez, however, is much more conflicted. He says he’ll pull the lever for McCain in the voting booth but has no plans to publicly endorse him. He might have done so if the Republican leadership had publicly repudiated what he considers the party’s xenophobic stances. On the other hand, “if Senator Obama was a pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage Democrat,” he says, “I would have supported him completely.” Neither scenario, of course, will come to pass. As Rigoberto MagaƱa, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Greeley, Colo., puts it, “If we could combine the two [candidates], it would really help us out. But I guess we don’t have that luxury.”

Source: Newsweek

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Vicente Duque  |  October 11, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Mad McCain = Mucho Loco.

    A short message in Spanish that amazingly all English speakers understand :

    No Vote por Loco McCain, No Vote por Irascible, No Vote Por Impetuoso, No Vote por Irracional, No Vote por Descontrol, No Vote por Furia, No Vote por Arrogancia, No Vote por Ignorancia, No Vote por Destruccion y Conflicto.

    No Vote por Temperamental, No Vote por Impredictible.

    Vote por Racional, Vote por AutoControl, Vote por Inteligente, Vote por Calma, Vote por Tranquilidad, Vote por Cerebral, Vote por Profesor, Vote por Personalidad Profesorial y Presidencial.

    Vote por Obama.

    http://tossUpStates.blogspot.com/

    http://milenials.blogspot.com/

    Vicente Duque

    Reply

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