How Hispanics Voted Republican
By CAROLYN CURIEL
One of the biggest surprises in the presidential election may have been the ground shift - a momentous one for the Democrats - in how Hispanics voted: namely, in enormous numbers and, very often, Republican. Now, even though they claimed a majority of the Latino vote, Democrats suddenly find themselves in real danger of losing one of the biggest pieces of their base, one that had been counted on for loyalty approaching that of African-Americans. This happened, in part, because the Republicans went to church.
In making their gains, the Republicans exploited a largely unheralded fact: among minority groups, Hispanics rank with the most religious. About one-third told pollsters they consider themselves born-again Christians. The vast majority of the remainder are Roman Catholic, often devoutly so.
As part of their larger strategy of appealing to pastors and other church leaders, the Republicans, in effect, franchised their product, President Bush, through the pulpits. In the process, they found an especially receptive audience in Hispanics. Their ties to the Democratic Party traditionally have been through labor unions, which have diminished in strength and influence.
While John Kerry appeared in black churches, it was mostly to the exclusion of other places of worship. That allowed the Bush campaign to seize on religious faith as the new common denominator and thus overcome the thorniest challenge in courting Hispanics, who are anything but a monolithic voting bloc. National roots are numerous. Although most Latinos have ancestries that are either Mexican, Puerto Rican or Cuban, a growing number come from Central or South America or the Caribbean. Some have families that have been here for generations and speak primarily or exclusively English, while others are newly arrived and depend on Spanish. But whatever their differences, most go to church.
Neither party needs a calculator to realize that to guarantee future success, it needs Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the American population. That's even truer after this election, which seemed to awaken Latinos to their potential power.
The number of Hispanics voting grew, perhaps by as much as 50 percent from the 2000 election. According to an exit poll, 44 percent of some nine million Latinos voted for Mr. Bush. That still left Mr. Kerry with 56 percent, but that pales beside Al Gore's 65 percent showing. The results exceeded the milestone set by the president's strategist, Karl Rove, for 40 percent this time.
None of this means the Democrats need to get into a contest of holier than thou to win over Latinos. That would gain little more than moving America dangerously closer to integrating matters of church and state. But to stay competitive, the party must recast its message, starting with how it defines morality. The G.O.P. values campaign boiled down to being against gay marriage and abortion rights. In Spanish language ads, that was articulated as supporting marriage between a man and a woman, and motherhood (through the law that says a fetus could be a murder victim).
In practical application to Latinos' everyday lives, those positions meant very little, especially when compared with Mr. Kerry's message of financing health care and education. The Hispanic population is the nation's youngest and poorest, with the biggest proportion of uninsured and school drop outs. Yet Mr. Kerry's campaign failed to effectively connect his policy goals to shared family priorities. Latinos want to take care of their children, to keep them healthy and see them succeed in life as they probably could not. An appeal to that moral imperative, perhaps the most common of all denominators, linked to the help Mr. Kerry was offering to achieve it, might have produced a very different result.