This article was published in the July 7, 2014, issue of National Review.
People who are seriously concerned about the Republican party’s future often think about how to appeal to the nation’s Hispanics. And they properly note that one Latino group stands out as potentially open to conservative Republicanism: Evangelicals.
Data from the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, the Public Religion Research Institute, and other sources all confirm this view. Evangelicals already make up about 16 percent of all Hispanics, and both their numbers and their share of all Hispanics are growing fast. Latino Evangelicals are the Hispanics likeliest already to support the GOP, and are extremely conservative on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Moreover, a majority voted for George W. Bush’s reelection — anywhere from 58 percent to 69 percent, depending on the source.
These data have led some to think that it will be easy for Republicans to garner Hispanic Evangelicals’ support. Daniel Garza, executive director of the free-market Hispanic group the LIBRE Initiative, recently voiced the conventional wisdom: “Market-based policies,” he wrote in the Federalist, “resonate with religious Hispanics.” The failure to win large numbers of their votes isn’t one of ideology,” he said. “It’s because of a long history of neglecting to promote the free market, Constitutional, pro-liberty principles that define the [Republican] party.”
Would it were true. But all available data paint a more nuanced picture of the Latino Evangelical community, and one that will be more electorally challenging for conservative Republicans.
By all measures, Hispanic Evangelicals embrace a much more expansive view of government than do whites, especially white Evangelicals. Sixty-two percent of Hispanic Evangelicals said in a May 2014 Pew survey that they supported “a bigger government with more services”; only 25 percent said they wanted “smaller government with fewer services.” This preference for larger government in the abstract is longstanding: A 2007 Pew poll found that 66 percent of Hispanic Evangelicals would rather pay higher taxes for more government services. They were only slightly more conservative on this score than Hispanics overall in the 2014 poll, who supported bigger government by a 67–21 margin, and they were slightly more supportive of big government than Hispanics overall in the 2007 survey. According to the Pew survey, America as a whole in 2014 supports smaller government by a 51–40 margin, and white Evangelicals support smaller government by margins close to 2–1.
Hispanic Evangelicals’ disagreement with conservative domestic-policy orthodoxy extends to many important issues. Fifty percent of them believe that government should guarantee health care for all Americans, and 57 percent prefer life without parole to the death penalty for convicted murderers. But the starkest differences come on the very sort of core economic questions that animate many conservative activists.
Data from the 2013 Hispanic Values Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, bear this out. Eighty-two percent of Hispanic Evangelicals supported raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, and 69 percent supported raising tax rates on Americans earning over $250,000 a year. Perhaps most disturbingly, 60 percent believed that the best way to promote economic growth was to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for more government spending on education and infrastructure; only 37 percent believed that lowering taxes and cutting spending on government programs was the best way to go.
Surveys often show that Republican voters overall are not as conservative as the party base. But the party continues to receive the votes of many white voters who are less conservative because they have a residual identification with the Republican party. Hispanic Evangelicals have no such identification. Their support for President Bush did not transfer to the Republican party as a whole, and President Obama received 57 percent of Hispanic Evangelical votes in 2008. The sources differ on 2012 (exit-poll data for this subgroup have not yet been released), but polls taken right before the election put the percentage of Latino Evangelicals who planned to vote for Romney between 39 and 46 percent. Moreover, a majority of Latino Evangelicals identified more with the Democratic party in both the 2013 Hispanic Values Survey and the 2014 Pew poll.
Contrary to popular belief, Republicans’ stance on immigration is not the reason they fare so poorly with Hispanics. Immigration is an important issue for Hispanic Evangelicals, but they consistently cite education, health care, jobs, and the economy as more important ones. (The only Hispanic subgroup for which immigration reform rivals these other issues in importance is, predictably, non-citizens.) The idea that failure to pass immigration reform is the only, or even the primary, barrier to Republicans’ winning over Hispanic Evangelicals, much less the more numerous and more liberal Hispanic Catholics, is wrong.
That doesn’t mean that conservatives should write off Hispanic Evangelicals. But it does mean that pure libertarianism, which rejects the idea that government can competently do almost anything to help people, is unlikely to win their support.
President Bush won their votes precisely because he did not exemplify that idea. “Compassionate conservatism” empowered faith-based groups, many of which are run by Latino Evangelicals, to help “the least, the last, and the lost,” as Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell phrased it in his benediction at Bush’s second inaugural address. No Child Left Behind focused attention on educating the children of the poorest and least-educated parents, and as such was very appealing to Hispanics who wanted their children to get the diplomas and degrees they did not. Combined with a clear pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage, pro-faith philosophy, this view of limited but active government resonated mightily with Hispanic Evangelicals.
One cannot go back to the future, so simply reinstating the policies of the Bush administration is no solution. But some Republicans offer a similar view, one of active but not expansionary government, that might achieve similar political effects. Senator Marco Rubio, not surprisingly, has come closest to this approach with his speech on how to tackle poverty. His idea to turn welfare programs into a block grant to states could be popular: The Hispanic Values Survey found that 55 percent of Hispanic Evangelicals believe that most people receiving welfare payments are gaming the system. Block grants would give state and local officials the ability to craft policies that reduce fraud and encourage work, much as states did following welfare reform in the Nineties. Rubio’s idea to take the earned-income tax credit and other payments and turn them into a wage subsidy should also be favorably received because it gives direct assistance to struggling working families to help them keep out of poverty.
Conservative health-care proposals could also be popular. A health-care proposal from Senators Coburn, Burr, and Hatch would repeal Obamacare’s price controls and mandates while using refundable tax credits to increase private-sector insurance coverage. The credits would be available at the point of purchase to individuals earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (which comes to $35,010 at the current level), along with their families. Extending coverage through subsidies while reducing government controls and regulations on the private health-care sector would show Hispanic Evangelicals that conservatives care about the poor and near-poor, but would also reject the top-down, government-controlled systems favored by the Left.
Conservatives ought not to throw away our principles in search of votes. But we also must recognize that our current expression of those principles, in word and in deed, does not draw the allegiance of a majority of Americans. Moreover, the swing groups in American national politics — Hispanic independents and Northern/Midwestern blue-collar whites — embrace a view of economics and domestic policy that fuses elements of the Left and the Right into something wholly distinct. Ronald Reagan was able to advance conservative principles in the face of an even less hospitable environment in the 1980s. He attracted people who did not identify with the Republican party by articulating principled and prudent policy solutions to their concerns. Winning the votes of Evangelical Hispanics — and other independent groups — will require conservatives to do the same today.
– Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.