Myth Buster: Latinos Are Not "Natural Conservatives"

Flickr/The Barack Obama Campaign

Latinos, the conventional wisdom on the right goes, are ripe for conservatives' electoral picking. A majority are Catholic, family-oriented, and hardworking. If only Republicans could change their thinking on immigration—turning away from the Mitt Romney "self-deportation" approach—this constituency would naturally flock to the party of Reagan. 

But a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) confirms what data geeks have been saying for years: The Latinos-are-conservatives-at-heart idea is little more than Republican myth-making. Not only does this constituency strongly identify with Democrats on the key social issues that matter to movement conservatives—abortion and same-sex marriage—they are more liberal than most Americans. And hardworking or not, Latinos are concerned with rising inequality and favor public investment in the economy. All this is bad news for those who think the GOP is a rebrand away from cashing in on a Latino giveaway. “Republicans clearly have a serious brand and issue platform problem among Hispanics,” says PRRI CEO Robert Jones.

The argument that Latinos are natural conservatives rests on the fact that this group is more religious than the population at large, and that religiosity correlates with Republican Party affiliation. Indeed, according to the PRRI study, 53 percent of Latinos identify as Catholic, 25 percent as Protestant, and 12 percent are religiously unaffiliated. But while the GOP has branded itself as the home of the faithful, the correlation between religiosity and affiliation with the Republican Party only holds for white voters. The latest Gallup numbers show 62 percent of "very religious" whites identify as Republicans, but this number shrinks to 25 percent for Hispanics. A mere 9 percent of very religious blacks identify as Republicans. 

Why the divergence? Religiosity does not consistently translate with policy preferences. PRRI found that a solid majority (55 percent) of Hispanics favor allowing gay and lesbian Americans to marry. That compares with 54 percent of Americans overall who hold this view. On abortion, this constituency is slightly more conservative: Fifty-two percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases while 48 percent say their opinion on abortion depends on the circumstances. 

There is some good news for conservative strategists in the PRRI report. The percentage of Latinos who identify as evangelical Protestants jumps by 6 percent between childhood and adulthood, and opposition to same-sex marriage stands at a whopping 89 percent with this group. But there is a countervailing trend among Hispanics that is often overlooked. Just as many—7 percent—lose their religion during that time period. “While the media and political strategists have noted the increase in evangelical Protestant affiliation as Catholic identity has declined, most have ignored the growing numbers of unaffiliated Hispanics, who rival the size of evangelicals, and are a critical part of the future of Hispanic politics,” says Juhem Navarro-Rivera, a PRRI research associate.

But whether opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage translates into support for Republican candidates depends also on how important these issues are to voters. Here's more bad news: Unlike a majority of Republican voters, Latinos place little importance on social issues. Only 22 percent and 32 percent respectively say gay marriage and abortion are critical issues facing the country today. Rather, they cited jobs and unemployment (72 percent), rising health-care costs (65 percent), and the quality of public schools (55 percent) as the most important issues facing the country. They also favor government intervention in the economy. Roughly 6 in 10 support higher taxes on businesses and the wealthy to support spending more on infrastructure and education. By similar margins, Hispanics say government should do more to address the gap between rich and poor and guarantee health care for all. 

Given where Latinos stand on all the fundamentals, it is no surprise that this group holds a negative view of the Republican Party. While 43 percent say "cares about people like you" describes the Democrats, only 29 percent say this describes the Republicans. 

The takeaway for Republican strategist should be clear. The problems the party has in appealing to Latinos mirror the problems the party has in appealing to younger, non-white voters: It is perceived as the party of the wealthy, fundamentally unconcerned with the economic issues affecting ordinary Americans. Since their defeat in the 2012 election, Republicans have searched for a quick fix to their electoral problems, but the PRRI report shows that if the GOP wants to make inroads with Latino and other non-white minority voters, it needs a lot more than a rebrand. 

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