A Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released findings on Latinos, religion and politics. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Latino Catholics strongly back Obama, evangelicals more divided

Latino Catholic and religiously unaffiliated registered voters strongly prefer President Obama to Governor Mitt Romney, while Latino evangelical registered voters are more divided among the two candidates, though they still favor Obama.  A new survey from Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life,  looked at  Latino voter preferences through the lens of religion.  The poll finds Latino voter preferences do not mirror non-Hispanic white preferences, with religious Latinos more Democratic than non-Latinos, and also more supportive of gay marriage.

“Latino Catholics or evangelicals, when you compare them to non-Latino whites, tend to be more liberal and Democrat in their orientation, though it’s more evenly split among Latino evangelicals,” says Luis Lugo, Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and one of the authors of the report.

“In the public imagination, people equate ‘Latino’ with ‘social conservative,’ but these polls show that politically, this is not necessarily the case,” says Cristina Beltrán, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Director of Latino Studies at New York University.

If anything, the Pew survey shows Latinos are more like what Beltrán calls ‘Joe Biden Catholics.’  Among Latino registered Catholics, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) support Obama, and about one in five (19 percent) support Romney.  This is different from non-Hispanic white Catholics, where support is more divided — 47 percent favor Obama and 46 percent favor Romney.

“What these polls show is that particularly for Latino Catholics, there is nothing intrinsically ‘conservative’ about being a religious or spiritual person and party politics,” says Beltrán.

Latinos who are not affiliated with a religion show strong support for Obama, at 82 percent, (only 7 percent for Romney), which is also higher than in the non-Hispanic white religiously unaffiliated population, where support for Obama is 65 percent.

Among Hispanic evangelical protestants Obama still gets higher numbers than Romney, but it is more evenly divided.  Half of Latino evangelical registered voters say they support Obama, and about four in ten (39 percent) say they support Romney.  Here too, Latinos support Obama at much higher numbers than similarly affiliated non-Hispanic whites.  Among non-Latino evangelicals, 74 percent support Romney.

Pew Forum’s Lugo says Latino evangelicals, in a way, are the ‘swing voters’ among the Hispanic electorate.  In 2004, more Latino evangelicals voted for George W. Bush, but in 2008, they voted for Barack Obama. “The vote has tended to swing, and I think it reflects internal divisions among Latino evangelicals,” says Lugo. While the group is more conservative on abortion and homosexuality than other Latinos, Hispanic evangelicals are different from non-Latino evangelical whites in one fundamental way, Lugo explains.

“Three quarters of Latino evangelicals prefer a larger government role, whereas white non-Latino evangelicals are exactly the opposite; they prefer a small role for government,” Lugo says, citing previous polls.  Lugo says this  could explain the appeal for George W. Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism,’ but the rejection of ‘small government’ Republican proposals.

What about political party affiliation as seen through religious identification?  The Pew poll found overall, registered Latino voters strongly back the Democratic party over the Republican party, 70 percent to 22 percent.  Latino Catholic registered voters support Democrats over Republicans by 71 to 21 percent, Protestants support Democrats over Republicans 56 percent to 31 percent, and among Latino evangelicals, 52 percent of registered voters lean toward the Democrats and 36 percent to the Republicans.   By contrast, non-Hispanic white Catholics are more divided among the parties (47 percent favor Democrats and 46 percent Republicans) and white evangelicals are strongly Republican, 72 percent to 23 percent Democrat.

For first time, more Latinos favor gay marriage than oppose.

Another important finding of the Pew Hispanic poll is that for the first time since the organization asked Latinos about gay marriage, 52 percent of Latinos now favor same-sex marriage, and 34 percent oppose it.  Over half of Latino Catholics (54 percent) favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, and seven in ten religiously unaffiliated Latinos favor legal marriage for gays and lesbians. Latino evangelical protestants are still opposed to gay marriage by two to one, 66 percent to 25 percent, though support is less than among non-Hispanic white evangelicals, which is 76 percent against gay marriage.

Fifty-four percent of Latinos say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, and among this group, 54 percent say their place of worship talks about abortion, 43 percent say they hear about immigration in their church, and 38 percent say clergy speak out about laws and homosexuality.  Twenty-nine percent of Latinos say their clergy speak out about candidates and elections.

So are Latinos as ‘conservative’ as many report?

Influential Republican and George W. Bush White House adviser Karl Rove said yesterday that Republicans are missing out on an opportunity to court Latinos, who are ‘natural conservatives,’ and ‘Latinos as social conservatives’ is heard countless times in talk shows and among pundits.  Yet as Lugo points out, even the most conservative Latino voting block, Latino evangelicals, prefer a larger role of government than the traditional Republican base, and are more tolerant of gay marriage than non-Latino evangelicals.

“It’s a fair battle between the two parties in terms of the Latino evangelical community,” says Lugo.

And in general, the Pew poll shows religiously-affiliated Latinos are more tolerant about gay marriage than non-Hispanic whites, and are more supportive of the Democratic party, which is seen as more progressive on social issues, than non-Hispanic whites.  A Latino Decisions poll found only 14 percent of Hispanics say ‘social issues’ are at the top of their agenda when choosing a political candidate, and three-quarters vote along ‘bread-and-butter’ issues.

“Latinos don’t tend to be animated by social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but have been driven more around economic issues, or Catholic teachings which stress social justice, like attention to poverty,” explains Beltrán.

RELATED: Growing numbers of Latinos have no religious affiliation

If the GOP wants to go after Latino voters, says Beltrán, their best bet would be among Latino evangelicals. Even here, as Lugo points out, Latinos are more divided about party affiliation.

With Latinos now 11 percent of the electorate and rapidly growing, “both parties have challenges, in terms of the changing configuration of the electorate.”

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