WASHINGTON — Latino Catholics may be strongly leaning toward Hillary Clinton — but immigration is not the only issue that is driving them away from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Nearly six in 10 registered Latino voters — 58% — are backing Clinton, and 19% are supporting Trump, leaving just 10% for Libertarian Gary Johnson and 6% for Green Party nominee Jill Stein, according to an Oct. 11 Pew Research Center poll. The gap widens among Catholics, with 69% opting for Clinton and just 15% favoring Trump. (The survey included 804 registered voters and was done from Aug. 23 to Sept. 21.)
Such results are consistent with the findings of other polls. An Aug. 25 survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute found that non-white Catholics prefer Clinton to Trump 76% to 13%. White Catholics, on the other hand, were more divided, splitting 44% to 41% between Clinton and Trump, respectively.
They also reflect recent election history. In 2012, for example, exit polls found that three-fourths of Latino Catholics went for President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, according to Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. “Hispanic Catholics have been pretty consistently Democratic,” Martinez said.
Latinos have historically been Democratic voters for reasons strikingly similar to why African-Americans have been, according to Tony Affigne, a political scientist at Providence College who has authored several books and research articles on Latino politics.
In the 1960s and into the 1970s, he said Mexican-Americans — the largest group of Latinos in the United States — increasingly identified with Democrats, beginning with outreach from the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and continuing with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Just as African-Americans had lived under Jim Crow laws in the South, so also Mexican-Americans had experienced similar segregationist laws and policies in the Southwest.)
The second-largest group of Latinos in the country, Puerto Ricans, started migrating in the late 19th century and early 20th century, mostly arriving in areas in the Northeast, such as New York City. Because many were black and of African descent, they ended up in segregated neighborhoods that were predominantly African-American. As African-Americans went Democratic, so did Puerto Rican Latinos, according to Affigne.
For Latinos, Democratic loyalty is a matter of history as well as policy. Top issues for Latinos tend to be education, health care, immigration rights and employment and income, according to Affigne. On those issues, he said Democratic positions are perceived to be more in line with the views of Latinos. Latinos also tend to be pro-life and respect the entrepreneurial spirit, and because of that, they are generally pro-capitalist. Republicans see those issues as opportunities to make inroads with Latinos. The problem: Latinos do not care about those issues as much as those on which they are in agreement with Democrats, according to Affigne.
From the perspective of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, top issues in this election include abortion, marriage and religious freedom. Some Catholic leaders are backing Trump because they believe he would appoint Supreme Court justices whose views are in line with Church teaching on those issues.
Not Single-Issue Voters
But Latino Catholics are not ignoring the guidelines from the Church, according to Steve Pehanich, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, the public policy and advocacy arm for bishops in a state where Latinos comprise two-thirds of their 10 million-strong flock. “Yes, Latinos embrace the life issue, and to pigeonhole them as only finding immigration important, I think, misses the point,” Pehanich said. “I think the Latinos are good Catholics. They understand their Church teaching. They work to understand it, and they work to live it out, too.”
“Neither candidate reflects the values of the community,” said Rodrigo Vela, the president of the Phoenix, Arizona, chapter of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders. “People are still struggling on which way they will go. There is a lot of disappointment in both candidates.”
Polling data confirms that Latino Catholics are not single-issue voters. A June 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that immigration indeed was ranked by 87% of those polled as being important to their vote. But equally as important was the economy. Similar shares of Latino voters also cited health care and terrorism as top concerns in that survey, according to data provided by Martinez.
“So it’s a variety of issues that people are finding important,” Martinez said. “It’s not just immigration.”
In California, Pehanich said the bishops are reinforcing the guidelines on voting that are found in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility” — a 41-page document that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved last November.
“Faithful Citizenship” reaffirms the primacy of life issues such as abortion and assisted suicide, but it also emphasizes that the whole of the Church’s social teaching must be considered when voting.
“A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position,” the document states. “In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.”
Enrique Pumar, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America, said Latino Catholics had turned away from Trump precisely because they believed he did not represent the Church’s teaching.
Trump has repeatedly promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, boost the number of U.S. immigration law enforcement officers, and increase deportations of those who did not come to this country legally. Pumar said Latino Catholics considered his stance on immigration to be at odds with Church teaching on the respect for the dignity of the human person, the importance of welcoming strangers and the rights of individuals to migrate.
Though most Latino Catholics appear to be leaning Democratic, the disparity is not as lopsided as it is with African-Americans, among whom Trump is polling in the low digits. One Fox News poll found that just 1% of African-American voters planned to vote for him. In contrast, the recently released Pew poll found Trump at 19% support among Latinos.
“Hispanics tend to be Democrats, but they tend to be center-right ideologically on some issues. So it’s kind of an interesting combination,” said Mark Gray, a pollster and researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
Ironically, the issue that has made Trump unpalatable to so many Latinos — his position on immigration — has endeared him to those Latinos who are backing him, according to Pumar. Those voters tend to be documented immigrants who view the issue as one of fairness. “They say, ‘Look, I came here legally; others should come here legally,’” Pumar said.
When it comes to abortion, Pumar said Latino Catholics are not convinced that Trump is genuinely pro-life. “They don’t perceive a major difference between the two major parties,” Pumar said.
Although Trump has said he is pro-life, many Hispanics see him as flip-flopping on the issue. Prior to announcing his run for president, Trump had publicly been pro-choice. In a 1999 interview with NBC’s Tim Russert, the real estate mogul described himself as “very pro-choice.” He has said that he since had a change of heart; but when questioned at length about abortion this summer, Trump staked out five different positions on abortion in almost as many days.
Trump also missed opportunities to score with Latinos on issues where they are in agreement, according to Pumar, such the Common Core requirements, which Trump has said he would eliminate.
“According to the data I have researched, the top three issues for Latinos in key states in the election are jobs, immigration and education, in that order. By not discussing his repeal of the Common Core, offending Hispanics and pushing for the wall and deportation as immigration deterrence, and specifically not addressing how his economic policy would benefit Latinos in particular, Trump and his campaign are missing an opportunity to connect with these voters,” Pumar said.
Another missed opportunity is his record as a businessman. The issue is not that Trump hasn’t talked about it — instead, it’s how he has talked about it, according to Pumar. “Trump talks about his business record in a self-aggrandizing way and about some of his business practices as savvy, when, for Latinos, they are not perceived as such, as is the case with taxes. For Trump, not paying taxes is a smart business decision; for Latinos, it is another sign of the injustice and corruption they experienced back home,” Pumar said.
Nonetheless, Trump has connected with some Latino voters. One is Denise Galvez, a professional marketer of Cuban descent who lives in the Miami area and is one of the founders of Latinas for Trump.
She said her organization, Latinas for Trump, which is based in South Florida, has thousands of members on its two Facebook pages. Traditionally Cubans have been reliable Republican voters. But this year, the demographic is more split, with 43% favoring Trump and 36% breaking for Clinton, according to a poll by Bendixen & Amandi, a Miami-based consulting firm. Galvez said her group consists of Cuban-Americans along with other Latinos. A lot of them are small business owners. “What binds us all together is the work ethic and the patriotism,” Galvez said.
Galvez, who describes herself as a practicing Catholic, said she supported Trump because of his stated pro-life position and his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who will defend religious freedom. “I’m focused on the much bigger picture,” Galvez said.
But others like Vela say the campaign has seen no substantive discussion on policy issues.
Vela said, “It’s just an unfortunate election cycle.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.