WASHINGTON -- As Mitt Romney seeks to cut into the President Barack Obama’s commanding lead among Latino voters, he might want to pay particular attention to Hispanic evangelicals.
While three out of four Hispanic Catholics support President Barack Obama, evangelical Protestant Latinos are much more divided, according to a Pew Research Center study released Thursday.
Nearly 40 percent of evangelical Latinos say they support Romney – the largest share for the GOP candidate among any Latino group, according to the center.
Some evangelical leaders feel those numbers are low.
“My projection is you’re going to see close to 60 percent of Latino evangelicals supporting the Romney ticket,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which is made up of more than 25,000 evangelical congregations.
“It’s not a question that they’re head over heels with Romney,” Rodriguez said. “I think there is a reluctant disappointment with Obama.”
The importance Romney puts on marriage and his entrepreneurial spirit resonates with many evangelicals. But Rodriguez said evangelicals are more turned off with Obama because of his shift to support gay marriage, his failure to pass immigration reform and his administration’s record number of deportations, which have included members of the church.
An estimated 12 million Latinos are expected to vote in this year’s election, and Democrats and Republicans are working hard to motivate supporters, particularly in battleground states where Latinos are expected to be critical, such as Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Florida.
While Latinos have traditionally aligned themselves with Democrats, the Protestant vote represents Romney’s best opportunity to “slice off a small percentage of Latinos in a few swing states to eke out a victory,” Gaston Espinosa, an associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California, argued this week in the online journal Religion & Politics.
But to attract more Latino votes, Romney must continue his journey to the center on immigration.
Protestant Latinos voted for Bill Clinton in 1996. They flipped for George W. Bush in 2004 as he championed immigration reform. They went back to Democrats in 2008 when Obama promised to push immigration reform in his first year.
Latino evangelicals are much more conservative on social issues than Catholics, so it makes sense that they “naturally gravitate” to Romney, said Edwin Hernandez, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame. They generally are more established in the country, second- or third-generation, have higher rates of citizenship and are more politically active.
About 16 percent of registered Latinos are evangelicals, according to the Pew study, but their numbers are growing rapidly.
Despite many values shared with Republicans, half of Latino evangelicals still say they support Obama, according to Pew. In comparison, less than 20 percent of white evangelicals support the president compared with 74 percent support for Romney, despite reservations about the Republican nominee’s Mormon faith.
But Romney and the Republicans’ progress with Latino evangelicals has been obstructed by immigration. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference as well as other leading evangelical groups such as Philadelphia-based Esperanza have been calling for reform as well as toned-down rhetoric from Republicans.
“Latino evangelicals are the quintessential swing vote,” said Rodriguez. “We’re not married to the donkey or the elephant. We’re married to the lamb.”