Moral values not a defining issue for Latino voters

In November 2004 the New York Times proclaimed “Moral values cited as a defining issue of the election” and numerous anecdotal claims were made that President Bush benefited from a spate of same-sex marriage initiatives across the country that boosted turnout among church-going social conservatives.  As part of this supposed “moral values” wave, some even claimed that Bush made in-roads with Latinos who are often incorrectly described as “socially conservative.”  For example, the National Journal wrote that, “For Bush, the evangelical Latino community proved to be an ideal target constituency, because in pursuing it the GOP could push the hot-button issues of abortion and gay rights in ways that had been powerfully effective among white evangelicals.”  Examining the 2004 exit polls, scholarly research by Alvarez, Abrajano and Nagler (2008) does find that Latino voters who ranked “moral values” as their top concern – as 18% of Latinos did – were statistically less likely to vote for John Kerry after controlling for a host of other well-known factors.

Still, if 18% of Latinos said moral values was their top concern in 2004 – the year of moral values – that means that 82% cited some other issue as their top concern such as the economy, the war on terror, the war in Iraq, education, health care, and so on.  Fast-forwarding back to the 2012 election, we want to dig a little bit deeper into the moral values debate and the Latino vote, given the recent announcement by President Obama that he now supports marriage for same-sex couples, and the reaction questioning if this new position will help, or hurt Obama among Latino voters?

At least one new national poll concludes that Obama’s support for same sex marriage could hurt him in November.  Is this the case among Latinos? As part of the Latino Decisions-impreMedia tracking poll of Latino registered voters, we featured one entire installment on the topic of religion and moral values.  Because of the attention moral values received in past elections, and because religion could be a topic again with the first Mormon presidential candidate to win a party nomination, we asked Latino voters about their views on religion and politics.  We found that an overwhelming majority of Latino voters – 75% to be exact – said that politics was more about economic issues in their daily lives, than about moral issues such as same-sex marriage (gaining 14% agreement).

However this may not be so obvious.  Latinos are indeed a religious group.  According to our data, 46% of Latino registered voters attend church every week, while the American National Election Study estimates that just 23% of all Americans were weekly church-goers in 2008.  Further, 60% of Latino voters told us that religion provides “quite a bit” of guidance in their daily lives.  Among foreign-born, naturalized citizens, we found an even higher rate of church attendance and religiosity.  Yet despite this commitment to religion, a majority of Latino voters said that religion would have no impact on their vote in 2012.  Even among Latinos who attend church every week, 45% said it would have no impact on their vote compared to 32 who said it would have a big impact.

Further, one of the avenues through which religion and moral values often shapes or influences politics is through the pulpit.  Politicians often make direct appeals on Sunday, and pastors and preachers may continue to reinforce such themes in following weeks.  Yet we find Latino registered voters clearly reject this overt connection between religion and politics.  When asked if religious leaders should tell their members which candidates to support, 82% say no, and just 15% say yes.  Even among Latinos who describe themselves as born-again Christians, three-quarters do not want their pastors talking about politics. When asked if politicians with strong religious beliefs should rely on their beliefs to guide decisions in government, 72% of Latinos say no, and 19% say yes.  And on this question as well, two-thirds of Latino born-agains oppose religion guiding government officials.

If politics is no place for religion, then what is?  In our surveys over the past year we have seen a clear preference for specific policy issues impacting the Latino community.  Jobs, the economy, immigration, health care, and education have all rated as important issues.  Abortion, same-sex marriage, and other religious or moral values issues have not registered at all in terms of salience to Latino voters in 2012.

To get more specific, we asked what politics is all about and rotated two competing options.  As we note above, 75% of Latino voters say that politics is more about economic issues such as jobs, taxes, gas prices and minimum wage, and just 14% say that politics is more about moral issues such as abortion, family values, and same-sex marriage.  Across all meaningful demographics groups within the Latino electorate we find this same trend.  Weekly church-goers tell us by better than 5-to-1 that politics is not about moral issues.  Likewise, self-described born-agains, and for those who religion provides “a great deal” of personal guidance are convinced politics is more about economic policy issues than moral values.

Thus, when it comes to voting for, or against specific candidates, Latinos are unlikely to have moral values issues such as same sex marriage on their mind.  It does not seem Obama will lose any persuadable Latino voters over the issue of marriage, nor would Romney woo any Latinos over his stance that marriage is only between one man and one woman.  However, this does not mean that proponents or opponents of same sex marriage can forget about Latinos.  The data reviewed above indicates that Latinos will not bring their views on moral or religious issues to bear in candidate elections.  In ballot initiatives and referendum, all bets are off and we should look to opinion on each issue to see where Latinos stand.  Ballot initiatives are unique because they provide voters with an opportunity to forgo the candidates and vote directly on a policy issue.  Even if the issue ranks low on a voter’s list of salient topics, the ballot initiative gives that issue it’s own spotlight and salience, and asks the voter to make a decision on said issue.

In our next installment on Latinos, moral values, and the same sex marriage debate, we will look at Latino public opinion on marriage, previous votes on ballot initiatives, and discuss the need for Latino-targeted outreach when it comes to future initiative votes on the so-called “moral values” issues.

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