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Speak Spanish or Jesus: The New Latino Vote


HOUSTON -- Presidential candidates in 2016 will need to attract a more diverse crowd than ever and that includes the evangelical vote. According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of evangelicals are now non-white and their numbers are growing.

White House contenders attending this month's National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference annual convention in Houston signaled that Latino evangelicals are a demographic with emerging political clout.

Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov.Mike Huckabee, an officially announced candidate, addressed the convention.

"You can't deny the fact that it [Hispanics] is the single highest growing community in America," Christianity Today President and CEO Harold Smith, also at the convention, noted.

Gus Reyes, COO of the NHCLC told CBN News, "If I was running a campaign I would say to my leader 'We need to be there.'"

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel noted, "There's no question that they're courting the NHCLC and they're courting the Latino community because they understand that this is a huge constituency that can and frankly will turn the election."

Can't Ignore This Group

Here's why presidential candidates can't ignore this group. Right now, despite some recent declines, self-identified Christians make up more than 70 percent of the U.S. population. A Pew Research Center study this year shows that evangelicals make up a quarter of that group, having declined only slightly in recent years compared to other Christian groups.

Also, Latinos are a growing part of the evangelical population. They currently make up 11 percent of all evangelicals in the United States. Catholics also account for one-fifth of the U.S. Christian population and Hispanic Catholics are their fastest-growing racial group. One in three Catholics is Hispanic.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, NHCLC president, told CBN News that candidates will want to focus on Latinos and in particular, Latino evangelicals.

"Latino evangelicals will play a significant role in determining who occupies the White House after 2016, without a doubt," he said.

The electoral math is also significant. Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, predicts seven swing states in 2016: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, and New Hampshire. In three of those states, Hispanics make up more than 15 percent of eligible voters.

It's no wonder then that candidates are speaking Spanish, making faith-based appeals or both.

"I do not come to you tonight with the ability to speak Spanish but I do speak a common language -- I speak Jesus," Huckabee told NHCLC attenders in Houston.

Motivating Voters

The NHCLC boasts more than 40,000 member churches in the United States. Christian faith leaders are taking note and took part in the convention.

"Their [Hispanic's] churches are growing at a rapid pace and they are speaking into political issues and cultural issues more than they did in the past," Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told CBN News.

To promote civic engagement and the Latino influence, the NHCLC will encourages churches to host voter registration drives for 2016. The concern is the perennial problem of low voter turnout among Hispanics.

Rodriguez said "it's not proportional to where we should be. Nevertheless, it's more than where we used to be."

Huckabee told CBN News he believes Christians should consider civic engagement to be a spiritual responsibility.

"Historically one of the challenges has been getting people to say it matters to be involved in the political sphere because a lot of people say, 'Look this is not my kingdom -- my kingdom is the one to come,'" he said.

Talking the Language

If Latinos engage and vote they could shape issues and influence the national conversation. Research shows that education and employment are top concerns.

Rodriguez saud that while life, marriage, and religious liberty also matter, immigration is critical. He said that while many Latinos lean Republican they could sit out the election if they perceive an anti-immigrant tone.

"It's more of a 'Man, you're going to make it difficult for us to vote for you if you don't pass immigration reform," he explained.

Other faith leaders also warn that anti-immigrant language is a turnoff for many. 

"How you message it, how you address it is a big deal," Staver said.

"The sort of dog-whistle language about immigrants is not something that evangelicals are going to receive," Moore said.

In 2012, Hispanics accounted for 10 percent of the presidential vote. In the next 15 years, Pew predicts they will account for nearly half the growth in eligible voters.

Those are numbers that more and more candidates are taking seriously, along with the faith of this emerging population.

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