Latinos are a pivotal voting block for the Democratic Party. From school boards to the US presidency, the success or failure of Democratic candidates often hinges on the degree to which Latinos turn out and support them. This is a far cry from two decades ago when I started researching Latino voters.
In the 1990s, any discussion of Latino voting was often met with awkward silence, followed by the question, “Do Latinos vote?” Today, questions about Latinos no longer focus on their political relevance, but rather on their loyalty to the Democratic Party. In 2020, an estimated 16 million Latinos went to the polls, and their support for Biden was critical to his victory.
Even so, throughout the 2022 midterm election cycle, there have been countless stories about Latinos abandoning the Democratic Party. The growth of religious conservatism in the form of evangelicalism and/or traditional Catholicism is the most common reason given for why Latinos are allegedly embracing the GOP. A recent CNN article on the power of Latino evangelicals quotes one such voter as saying, “The core values that I believe in and the Bible teaches about, [the Democratic Party] just don’t support that, and I can’t support anything that goes against my faith.” The narrative of Latino religious conservative values and their natural alignment with the Republican Party dates back to Ronald Reagan. In a famous exchange between Reagan and his Latino campaign advisor Lionel Sosa, it is said that Reagan claimed, “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet.”
Could Reagan be right? Is it just a matter of time before Latinos discover they are Republicans after all?
Putting the lie to Reagan’s claim
A closer examination of the polls and questions around Latino religiosity tells a different story. One of the most surprising trends in Latino politics is not the rise of evangelicalism but the dramatic growth of non-believers. The number of Americans identifying as atheist, agnostic, or no religious preference is increasing, and Latinos are not immune to this trend. In a 2021 national survey of over 3,000 Latinos by the Pew Research Center, the second largest social identity after Catholic (46%) is secularism, or those who selected the categories atheists, agnostic and nothing in particular (totaling 25%). I suspect the number of secular Latinos could eclipse Catholicism if we included “secular religionist,” or individuals who attend religious services for cultural or social reasons yet have secular worldviews. Unfortunately, the current state of polling does not allow us to identify these respondents and they are often lumped together with those who are religious, inflating the number of religious Latinos.
If it is the case that a significant number of Latinos are secular, what does this mean politically for the 2022 midterm elections? To answer this question, I examine tracking poll data from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). As one of the designers and analysts of the NALEO tracking poll and other Latino surveys, I can speak to these and other polling data on Latinos with a high degree of confidence.
Let’s dive into the data by first determining the number of Latino voters who I classify as secular. In the survey, respondents were asked the following question, “How important is religion in your daily life?” Response options include very important, somewhat important, not that important and not at all important. In the survey, 27% said “not that important” and “not at all important.” Among English-dominant Latinos, that number jumps to 41%, indicating that the forces of assimilation and integration will lead Latinos to become more secular. Nonetheless, for purposes of this analysis, I will simply classify 27% of Latino voters as secular and the remaining 73% as religious. The subsequent analysis is based on comparing these two groups of Latinos.
It is often claimed that secular voters are disadvantaged politically since they do not have organizational structures like churches that create mobilizing opportunities. Hence, secular voters are presumed to be less interested and engaged with politics. In the 2022 NALEO tracking poll, respondents were asked to state the likelihood of voting in the congressional midterms. Among respondents who say “Almost certain I will vote” the difference between religious (65%) and secular Latinos (62%) is within the margin of error. In other words, there is no statistical difference in turnout between religious and secular Latinos. Secular Latinos are as politically engaged as religious Latinos in the 2022 midterm elections. However, dramatic differences between religious and secular Latinos emerge when we consider who Latinos plan to vote for.
In the survey, Latinos were asked whether they planned to vote for the Republican candidate, Democratic candidate, or some other candidate in their district race for U.S. Congress. What is evident from Table 1 is that the majority of Latinos, secular or religious, are voting for the Democratic candidate. Nonetheless, the intensity of that choice varies across secular and religious voters. Among secular voters, 63% plan to support the Democrat while a mere 19% plan to vote for the Republican candidate—a 44-point gap. Among religious voters, 52% intend to vote Democratic, while 36% intend to vote Republican—a 16-point gap. If secularism was a negligible social identity, it could be argued that Republicans are indeed making inroads with Latino voters broadly given that the partisan gap is relatively narrow among religious Latinos. However, the presence and growth of secularism among Latinos is an important factor in their steadfast support for the Democratic Party.
Senate races also show a similar pattern among secular and religious Latino voters. Among secular voters, 62% plan to support the Democrat while a mere 20% plan to vote for the Republican candidate—a 42-point gap. Among religious voters, 51% intend to vote Democratic, while 37% intend to vote Republican—a 14-point gap. Again, if polling trends were showing a dramatic rise in religiosity among Latinos, then it would be safe to say that the days of Latino loyalty to the Democratic Party are numbered. Indeed, Ronald Reagan would be correct in his view that “Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it.”
However, the trends show the opposite happening. Rather than embracing religion, Latinos are abandoning it in significant numbers.
The 2022 NALEO tracking poll also shows significant attitudinal differences between secular and religious Latino voters on other questions. For example, Latinos were asked about the degree to which they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the Supreme Court. Fifty-seven percent of secular voters rated the Supreme Court unfavorably, while a mere 35% of religious voters rated it unfavorably—a gap of 22 points. A 16-point gap separates secular and religious Latinos in their evaluations of Donald Trump, with 73% of secular voters rating him unfavorably while 57% of religious voters rating him unfavorably. Secular voters are also more likely to rate the Republic Party as being hostile toward Latinos than religious voters.
Finally, throughout the survey, religious Latino voters report that they have been exposed to higher levels of misinformation and find it to be more truthful than secular Latinos. For example, when asked if there was cheating and fraud in the 2020 election and that Donald Trump was the true winner, 50% of religious Latinos said this was “mostly true” to “more true than false.” Among secular voters, 22% hold this belief. A dramatic 28-point gap separates secular and religious Latino voters, indicating that the latter is more susceptible to political deception.
Ronald Reagan popularized a myth that Latinos are natural allies of the Republican Party. Their conservative orientations were born out of their embrace of evangelical Christianity and conservative Catholicism. Should these religious identities take hold and expand among Latinos, then their shift toward the Republican Party is all but inevitable. In fact, pundits and Latino Republicans are proclaiming the beginnings of this political shift will be seen in the 2022 election.
To this, I say nonsense. Religion isn’t expanding but declining among Latinos. The most dramatic development in Latino politics is the rise of secularism among this population. If we rely on standard survey questions based on religious affiliation or the importance of religion, then about one-quarter to one-third of Latinos can be classified as secular. However, the number of secular Latinos is likely higher given that a significant number attend religious services or engage in religious practices out of cultural or social attachments to those organizations while holding a secular worldview. This group of Latinos can be classified as secular religionists. For a detailed discussion of secular religionists and the ways pollsters can identify such persons read Secular Surge, A New Fault Line in American Politics. Regardless of the measures used, Latino secularism is growing and will continue to as they become more integrated in American society.
Latinos may abandon the Democratic Party in the future, but they will not do so in 2022. Why? To snowclone the words of another campaign advisor – it’s secularism, stupid.