Saturday, October 18, 2008

Latino Protestants shift toward Democratic Party

They share conservative positions against abortion and gay marriage, but a growing number of Latino Protestant voters are swinging toward the Democratic Party this year, a new poll shows.

"The shift is a direct result of the immigration reform debacle," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the Sacramento-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "This is why Latino evangelicals are abandoning the Republican Party and voting for Barack Obama."

Registered voters who are Latino and Protestant favor Obama over John McCain by a 17-point margin of 50.4 to 33.6 percent, with 10.4 percent still undecided, according to a phone survey sponsored by Rodriguez's organization.

Of about 500 Latino Protestants interviewed last week, 82.8 percent said a candidate's position on immigration is important in determining their vote. Almost 71 percent considered immigration reform an extremely important voting issue, compared to 74.8 percent who felt that way about abortion and 55.8 percent about gay marriage.

Of those surveyed, more than 80 percent identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians — a group for whom Republican positions are traditionally more likely to resonate. Most Latinos in the United States are Catholic, but there are 9.2 million Latino Protestants in the country.

The growing voting bloc's political preferences reflect a shift from 2004, when Latino Protestants overwhelmingly supported the Advertisementre-election of George W. Bush. Post-election surveys found that Bush won 63 percent of these voters, up from 32 percent in 2000.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Rodriguez said he believes that the "xenophobic and nativist rhetoric" of some Republicans has turned off many Latinos. In the survey, 62.2 percent of Latino Protestants said they have heard public officials speak negatively about immigrants, although 43.4 percent associated the negative rhetoric with both parties — not just Republicans.

Rodriguez said he considers immigration a religious issue alongside social concerns about abortion or marriage. In the poll, 76.8 percent said their religious beliefs are an important component in influencing their views on immigration.

"The Biblical mandate to welcome the immigrant could not be clearer, and we draw our values from the Bible," Rodriguez said.

The immigration debate has been largely absent from the presidential election since the primary campaigns ended, although Obama and McCain have been battling each other's immigration records in Spanish-language commercials broadcast in swing states.

Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, dismissed Rodriguez's contention that a shift away from the GOP was primarily over immigration concerns.

"I think if this was a campaign where Latinos' sole issue was immigration we'd probably be doing a lot better," said Barajas, citing McCain's leadership in sponsoring a comprehensive immigration reform bill. "I think right now it's a matter of people just looking at the economy and just looking ... to blame the people on top."

While a majority of Latino Protestants now support the Democratic plan for immigration reform, 30.8 percent would leave their political party if the party does not find a more positive way to address the issue, said Katie Paris, spokeswoman for Faith in Public Life, another co-sponsor of the poll.

"Latino Protestants are the quintessential swing voters," Paris said.

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