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The Latino evangelical vote: "doing some serious thinking"

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WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, still hasn’t offered any immigration proposals that might  make him more sympathetic to many Latino voters-especially after taking positions in the primaries promoting “self-deportation” and promising to veto the DREAM Act.

But some on the Republican side are looking to cut some evangelical voters out of the Democratic coalition — voters who are unsatisfied with Romney’s negative message on immigration, but disillusioned with President Barack Obama’s broken promise on immigration reform, his record-setting deportation rates, and his recent pronouncement in favor of same-sex marriage.

In a series of interviews in and around Orlando, Florida — where both Obama and Romney are scheduled to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) next week — many Latino evangelical voters were unhappy with Obama’s support for same-sex marriage. Their dissatisfaction was deepened by the president’s inaction on other issues that matter to the community, such as immigration reform. Nevertheless, Romney’s not exactly offering these voters an alternative; his immigration positions are diametrically opposed to the comprehensive reforms most Latino evangelicals (and other Latino voters) support

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told me, “I think the Latino evangelical vote is a thoughtful one. I think they’re going to look at the candidate’s platform as a whole, whether in local or state races or for president. If (candidates) are talking about vetoing any kind of immigration reform legislation, that will be a factor. If they’re talking about social issues, that will be a factor.”

“The president’s deportation records are a problem for the Latino evangelical base, but at the same time the rhetoric in some states, where they’re passing xenophobic, anti-immigrant laws, is also a consideration,” Salguero added.

“We’re in this moment where the Latino evangelical is a classic swing voter, and is putting serious thought into which of the two parties will do the right thing, across the whole platform. We don’t vote on just one issue. We have a broad platform, and that’s what will be determined in November.”

“Each person has their highest-priority issue,” Salguero allowed. “For some Latino evangelicals, that will be immigration reform. For others, it will be the definition of marriage.” According to Salguero, “Latino evangelicals are very clear: they define marriage as being between a man and a woman, traditionally.”

A recent poll conducted by the National Council of  La Raza (NCLR) found that 54% of Latinos favor same-sex marriage — 1% more than among the general population. An earlier poll, conducted by Latino Decisions for ImpreMedia in December 2011, found support among Latino voters at 43%.

“The question in 2012 is whether Latino evangelicals will vote more on immigration issues, or more on social conservative issues, but we don’t know how that will turn out,” Salguero says. In 2004, a presidential election categorized as being about moral values, “Latino evangelicals voted for the most part for President George W. Bush, and in 2008, a small majority voted for President Barack Obama. In 2012, we’ll see which of the two issues carries more weight.”

Regardless of Obama’s stated support for same-sex marriage, “what we’re looking for right now from President Obama and from presidential hopeful Romney,” Salguero explained, “is what will their policy be, what legislation will they support. We want religious voices and personal conscience to be respected in every state and in any piece of legislation, whether at the federal level or state by state.”

Asked if Romney will be able to distance himself from the positions he took and statements he made in the primaries on immigration in order to effectively appeal to Latino evangelical voters in the general election, Salguero said that “that’s a question for Governor Romney.” What’s clear, he added, is that there has to be a serious discussion about immigration reform.

“We’ve been talking with Republicans and Democrats alike about our platform and our interest in immigration reform. What matters to us isn’t supporting a candidate, but getting the candidates to support our platform,” Salguero concludes.

According to the December 2011 Latino Decisions/ImpreMedia poll, 63% of Latino voters strongly oppose the idea that religious leaders should tell their congregants what candidates or policies to support, while only 15% believe they should. Furthermore, the poll found, 75% of Latino voters say their vote will depend mostly on economic issues, while only 14% say it will depend on social ones.

Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America’s Voice Education Fund.