- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Strategists from both political parties grapple with the implications of the burgeoning number of Hispanic voters in America. And the farther analysts wade into these waters, the more the crosscurrents swirl. Developing a better grasp on the critical link between religious belief and voting behavior is a lifeline to better understanding. But recent trends may muddy the waters rather than provide more clarity about the link between religion and politics for this growing group of U.S. voters.

Attracting larger segments of Hispanic voters is a major tactical goal of both Republican and Democratic Party leaders. And it’s no surprise why. This subgroup could significantly reshape electoral outcomes nationally — as Latino voters are already doing in certain regions of the country. And the numbers bear this out. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the share of Latino voters jumped by 23 percent between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections — over twice the rate of growth of non-Hispanic whites. Most expect these figures to rise even further in 2008.

But a dose of perspective is also needed. As Robert Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, accurately pointed out in a 2005 op-ed, the Latino vote has more potential than actual clout. He noted Hispanics accounted for half the nation’s population growth in the past four years, but they only provided one-tenth of the increase in all votes between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, according to Census Bureau figures. Hispanics represented about 8 percent of the electorate in 2006, according to exit polls. “The growth of the Latino population as a whole may be gigantic,” Mr. Suro wrote, “but only one out of every four Latinos added to the U.S. population is an added voter.”

Still, trends among Latino voters bear watching and understanding. Republicans grew their numbers among Hispanics in the four election cycles between 1998 and 2004. Piecing together exit polls (with the caveat that they were done by different polling organizations), the Republican Party increased its share of Latino voters during that six-year period. For example, Republicans garnered 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1998, 35 percent again in 2000, 39 percent in 2002 and 44 percent in 2004. But that number plummeted in 2006 to 29 percent, a drop of 15 points compared to 2004. Moreover, despite the shellacking by Democrats in November (Republicans lost ground, for example, among men, women, conservatives and all religious denominations, to name a few) the decline among Latinos represents the largest decrease among all demographic subgroups.

A new Pew report issued last week provides some additional clues about the role Latinos play in American politics, and how religion shapes their political participation. It’s too comprehensive to review in detail here, but a couple points bear directly on the important link between politics and religion in the Hispanic community.

First, the study underscores the growing role of Latinos in the Catholic Church. About a third of all Catholics in America are now Latinos, according to Pew — and that percentage is growing. The political implications of this trend are unmistakable. Increasingly, if Republicans or Democrats want to win a larger share of the Catholic vote, it means figuring out how to attract more Hispanics as well. Republicans basically tied Democrats for the Catholic vote in 2004 (50 percent to 49 percent), but got trounced (55 percent to 44 percent) in 2006 among those voters. Part of this decline was due to the growing share of Latinos in the Catholic Church and how poorly the Republican Party fared in that community.

A second issue concerns the complicated link between religion, Hispanic political ideology and voting. Many Republican strategists argue Latinos are culturally conservative, and therefore potential supporters. Hispanics are more conservative than non-Hispanics on some social issues, like gay marriage and abortion, according to Pew. But when it comes to general political ideology, a higher percentage of non-Hispanics overall, including Catholics and evangelicals, self-identify as “conservative” compared to Catholic and Evangelical Latinos. So, despite their more right-of-center views on some social issues, many Hispanics do not automatically align with ideological conservatives at the ballot box. The politics of the immigration debate, which will be addressed in a future column, is a mitigating factor.

This all creates nettlesome challenges for Republicans seeking to expand their margins with Latino voters. Political strategists who assume supporting some teachings of the Catholic Church directly translate to Hispanics voting for conservative political candidates do so at their own risk.

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