It wasn’t that long ago that some political pundits believed that America’s growing ethnic and racial diversity would put the conservative movement on the path to extinction. “There’s not a single demographic megatrend that favors Republicans,” Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Axios declared in 2019. “Republicans are sitting on a demographic time bomb of their own making,” Thomas E. Patterson of the Boston Globe wrote in 2020, adding that they “are paying a stiff price for defaming immigrants. If they hadn’t, they could have made inroads with the Latinx population.”
The reality is that there is no “Latinx population.” There is instead an extraordinarily diverse collection of populations of very different ethnic, racial, geographical, religious, and cultural backgrounds that, while sharing Hispanic and Latino origins, do not represent a monolith. Overwhelming majorities of these populations, when asked, reject the label “Latinx,” and a significant and growing number do not neatly align with either of America’s warring political identities. That reality became ever clearer in the 2020 election.
White voters made up as much as 85 percent of Trump supporters in 2020. But a number of Latino subpopulations are concentrated in swing states that play an outsize role in determining the outcome of national elections. While democratic strategists are deeply unsettled by Trump’s gain nationwide among Latino and Hispanic voters—estimated to be around eight to 10 points, with the increase far wider in some key districts—most Democratic strategists appear to ignore a key reason for the shift. While pollsters parse messaging on the economy, immigration, and health care, few are paying attention to the role of religious demagoguery. The same can’t be said about the GOP, which is harnessing this power and making it central to its strategy of reversing, if not extinguishing, what was once believed to be a “megatrend” running in the Democratic Party’s favor.
Consider, for example, the case of Pastor Frank Lopez and his congregation at the Jesus Worship Center, an evangelical church with two campuses in Miami. “President Biden said yesterday that the sexual identification ‘X’ would be added to the American passport,” Lopez tweeted in Spanish on April 1. “This is a wicked way of rebelling against God. An ignorant leader with a destructive agenda.”
On a typical episode of his YouTube show, Lopez vies with Argentinian writer Agustín Laje Arrigoni to serve up the reddest meat to the culture warriors in his audience. The “New Left,” as he calls it, promotes abortion as a way of killing off the poor. It seeks economic chaos. Its main beneficiaries are universities, journalists, feminists, and “globalist organizations.”
Lopez is hardly a voice in the wilderness. He serves on the board of directors of the Asociación de Ministros Hispanos del Sur de la Florida, a Miami-based organization committed, as they explain in Spanish, to “the defense of values and effective participation in social action programs,” with a particular emphasis on banning abortion. A glance at the organization’s events calendar shows that it holds regular community gatherings and a Hispanic homeschooling conference and is participating in a conference with the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the organization founded by seasoned right-wing strategist Ralph Reed, and which it praises for supporting “the biblical values of faith, hard work, marriage, family, responsibility.”
In a substantial fraction of Latino populations, the shift in political allegiances is directly tied to a shift in religion. About half of American Latinos and Hispanics are Catholic, and increasing numbers identify as evangelical—many aligned with Pentecostal and charismatic sects, which are also on the rise in South and Central America. Whether in Miami or Southern California, the new religion often comes with strikingly similar political messages. At Houses of Light, a Latino-majority evangelical church in Northridge, California, a 2020 online voter guide, distributed among the congregants in advance of the 2020 presidential election, gave Donald Trump a four-star rating of “Very good,” while Joe Biden was given no stars and a rating of “Terrible. Don’t vote.”
Houses of Light’s lead pastor, Netz Gomez, has made no effort to disguise his opinion on how God wants the faithful to vote. At a 2018 gathering of the group Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego, which took place at a Chula Vista megachurch and attracted dozens of Latino pastors along with members of their families and congregations, Netz stood at the podium and drew attention to a voter guide that was distributed to the members of the audience. “Please notice here,” he said in Spanish, “where it talks about the lieutenant governor, there are two candidates and they are Democrats. There was no choice for a person [with a little more values].” Netz opened the voter guide and pointed to the text. “These two people who are listed here, one of the lieutenant governor candidates has 99 percent of a secular vision,” he said. “Nothing of God. And the other candidate is a man who has 97 percent. It means that no one is good. [Do you understand]? There is no one to vote for.”
The repurposing of Latino-dominant evangelical churches for partisan political advantage on the right is increasingly coordinated at a national scale. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, whose president, the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, was a member of President Trump’s evangelical advisory board, claims to represent more than 40,000 churches and aims to plant another 25,000 before 2030. “We have the fortitude, the wherewithal, the drive,” Rodriguez said. “We even have the financial resources.… It’s coming via the conduit of megachurches.”
At conservative churches and on conservative media targeted at Latino populations, the traditional culture-war fare blends readily with economic demagoguery. According to Equis Research, which focuses on Latino voting habits, social media attacks on the alleged “socialism” and “communism” of the Democratic Party have proven to be particularly effective. This type of messaging “rings various bells” and “created a space for defection [from the Democratic Party] concentrated on people getting media from WhatsApp and right-wing outlets, along with those who most believe in social mobility through hard work (aka the American Dream),” according to the Equis Research report.
The red-baiting and culture-war politics go hand in hand with promotion of Trumpist lies about election fraud. At a ReAwaken America Tour stop in San Diego, the co-founder and president of Latinos for Trump, Bianca Gracia, repeated the Trumpian line about “election integrity” and went on to imply that her 2022 race for a Texas Senate seat was stolen too. “Seventy-three hundred votes disappeared, and no one has any answers. I do!” Gracia said. “God chose me for a reason. I didn’t lose, I won, because guess what? I’ve been in the Democrat plantation and I’ve been in the Democrat den, and I know their playbook.”
A number of audience members at ReAwaken America wore caps emblazoned with LEXIT, an acronym for the political organization Latino Exit from the Democratic Party. LEXIT was founded by Jesse Holguin, who has described himself as a former gang member and ex-con and is now “a strong Christian who fights for justice” and “works to lead Latinos and others away from the Left and back toward their faith.”
That LEXIT coexists in spaces with people promoting the Great Replacement and other racist conspiracy theories, endorsed and promoted by other attendees at ReAwaken America, is an interesting feature of the Trump era. The Republican coalition depends on its ability to cater simultaneously to these two seemingly at-odds groups and to help each find ideological common cause with the other. Apparently, religion helps bridge the divide.
GOP-aligned data organizations using sophisticated messaging strategies are capitalizing on all this ground-level action. In an April 2022 panel on the shift among Latino voters at the University of California Berkeley’s Citrin Center for Public Opinion Research, Amanda Iovino, vice president of WPA Intelligence, described the consolidated digital strategy that has facilitated the GOP’s Latino and Hispanic outreach efforts. “The biggest thing was on the data side,” she said. “It’s now part of the party infrastructure. It’s called Data Trust; it provides data and keeps the voter file, cleans it and improves on it, to all Republicans from the top down.”
Iovino described how Data Trust data is utilized by a WPA Intelligence goal that she called “our Hispanic growth target.” “These are individual voters across the country who are Hispanic and who are either swing or who are marginally aligned with the Democratic Party,” Iovino said. “So we know who these people are as individual voters, we can target them” with digital messaging. “And that’s how we start to win at the margins.”
WPA Intelligence operates within the larger world of political data-gathering and targeted messaging. The organization’s founder and CEO, Chris Wilson, has been a repeat guest on Washington Watch, a weekly radio show hosted by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of the religious right’s leading policy groups. Wilson traveled in the same right-wing datasphere as people like Bill Dallas, a convicted embezzler who served time in the San Quentin State Prison in California before founding a data firm that aimed to turn out the conservative Christian vote. Bill Dallas was not shy in describing the massive reach of his data operation. “We have about 200 million files, so we have pretty much the whole voting population in our database,” Dallas said in a 2016 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“What we do is track to see what’s going to make somebody vote either one way or not vote at all.”
Broadly accessible Latino-focused social media has also been mobilized to spread religious-themed misinformation and religious nationalist propaganda at the local level. In September 2020, a number of memes that appeared on the Latinos in Plainfield, New Jersey, Facebook page seemed intended to inflame right-wing culture wars among the Spanish-speaking community. One featured a picture of Biden and Harris, along with a sign for an “all gender” restroom, two men with arms entwined, a member of the clergy with a rainbow-colored scarf, a fetus in the womb being threatened with an instrument presumably used for abortion, and the slogan, in Spanish, “A vote for them is a vote for these anti-biblical abominations.” At the same time, such Facebook pages serve as a means of finding jobs in construction and the service industry, affordable housing, and other essential services.
New Spanish-language radio networks have also proven effective in spreading right-wing politics. Americano, which debuted earlier this year on Sirius XM and was founded by Ivan Garcia-Hidalgo, who is Peruvian and has close ties to the Republican Party, offers local programming with an unmistakable agenda. Americano’s 20 radio stations air a mix of right-wing and religious programming, and the network aims to serve “more than 500 million Spanish-speakers” around the world. Democrats, Garcia-Hidalgo has said, are “scared, and they should be.”
Conservative political strategists have had no trouble identifying and seizing the political opportunity represented in the fragmented Latino vote. At the 2021 Road to Majority conference, political strategist Nilsa Alvarez said, “Every area that our Hispanic teams mobilized in 2020, all of them went majority red. So we’re just going to grow that momentum.”
The evidence from the exit polls gives every reason to think that the strategy is working. Between 2016 and 2020, according to some reports, the Latino vote swung nine points in favor of the Republican presidential candidate. Black voters moved three points in Trump’s favor. Joe Biden’s victory hinged in part on a three-point improvement among white voters. The exit polls in general suggested that racial and ethnic polarization actually went down, even as educational and ideological polarization increased.
The state-level results should concern Democratic strategists even more. In heavily Latino Miami-Dade County—the largest county in the biggest swing state in the nation—Biden won only 53 percent of the vote compared with the 63 percent share won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the 62 percent share won by Barack Obama in 2012. Certain Latino subgroups, notably people of Colombian and Venezuelan descent, moved by as much as 40 percent in some precincts. In Hidalgo County, the most heavily populated county on the Texas-Mexico border, the Democratic share of the vote fell from 70 percent in 2012 and 68 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2020. That same year, Zapata, Texas, a county that is 94 percent Hispanic, voted Republican for the first time in nearly a century.
“Religious identity is one of the biggest divides among Latinos,” notes Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Research Religion Institute, a nonpartisan research and education organization, pointing to the 2020 AP/Votecast exit polls that showed Latino Catholics voted 67 percent for Biden while Latino Protestants voted 58 percent for Trump. “Most Latino Protestants identify as evangelical, and in the American context, that shared religious identity with white evangelicals has brought along with it a Republican partisan identity and set of political attitudes and priorities.” Jones also notes that “Latino evangelicals are the only nonwhite religious group with majority support for former President Trump.”
So why have some observers continued to fall back on the comforting fable that America’s demographic trends have marked the conservative movement for extinction? One part of the problem is that some may have lost sight of the degree to which politics is local. While progressive strategists focused on staking out positions on national issues, conservatives were busy planting and cultivating partisan churches, running highly targeted data and information operations, and building local radio and media markets. They are not afraid to lie, literally to demonize the political opposition, and to destroy our democracy itself in their pursuit of power.
But these demographic delusions are also rooted in a misunderstanding of how American politics works. It may be true that many Americans vote their “identity,” in the sense that they vote not for the party that promises their preferred policies but for the one that affirms their sense of self. But it isn’t always true that this identity is the same one that shows up on demographic surveys. Many Americans prefer to identify with purposes and values that unite us with Americans of other backgrounds and will support the party that appears to offer the same hopes and opportunities—including opportunities for economic advancement—to which all Americans are, at least in theory, entitled.
Republican political strategists may have understood how to associate themselves, however fraudulently, with this part of the American story better and are exploiting religious demagoguery to drive the message home. Unencumbered by loyalty to truth or fact, they have weaponized religious nationalism and the American dream and are using both to advance policies that will put that dream out of reach for most people. With substantial ground to make up, those Democratic strategists who still traffic in dated demographic theories had best abandon them and join with others in their party who are focusing instead on ground-level mobilization, relational organizing, and messaging that shows how we make the dream possible, and where the real threats to opportunity lie.