WASHINGTON — Protestant Latinos, a growing group of voters who were key supporters of President Bush in 2004, have shifted their backing to Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, driven in large part by anger toward Republican immigration policies, according to a poll released Thursday.
Latinos overall represent about 6% of U.S. voters. Protestant Latinos -- about a third of all Latinos -- heavily supported Bush's reelection. This year, however, just over half of these voters support Obama for president; a third said they would vote for Republican Sen. John McCain.
More than 80% of Protestant Latinos, who tend to identify themselves as evangelicals, said the candidates' positions on immigration would be central to their vote this year, according to the survey.
"The shift is a direct result of the immigration reform debacle," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, one of the four groups sponsoring the survey. "This is why Latino evangelicals are shifting to Barack Obama."
Swing states such as Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, places where immigration has been highly controversial, have large concentrations of Latinos.
Most Latinos are Catholic and traditionally lean Democratic, but Republican strategists focused on building Latino Protestants into a key constituency over the Bush presidency. The approach paid off in 2004, when those voters gave Bush 63% of their vote, up from 32% in 2000.
McCain had positioned himself as a friend to Latinos, teaming up with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2006 to write an immigration bill that would have given legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.
But many Latinos were angered by McCain's decision to distance himself from a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 2007, just as House Republicans adopted a strict platform against illegal immigration. Later, McCain said during a campaign debate that he no longer supported the 2006 immigration bill.
Survey co-sponsor Gaston Espinosa, a professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College, said the Republican stance could continue to reverberate.
"Immigration creates a national perception that Latinos are not particularly welcome in the Republican Party," Espinosa said.
Protestant Latinos indicated that among election issues, immigration was as important to them as abortion, and that it far outstripped same-sex marriage.
The telephone poll of 500 Latino Protestants was conducted Oct. 1 to 7 and has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
In a warning sign for Democrats, more than 60% said they had heard elected officials from both parties speak negatively about immigrants. About 43% associated anti-immigrant rhetoric with both parties; 40% linked anti-immigrant denunciations primarily to Republicans, 7.7% to Democrats.
"The pendulum of the Protestant Hispanic electorate has swung towards the Democratic Party. However, this energy can shift in the opposite direction," said Jesse Miranda, a professor who heads another group sponsoring the survey, the Jesse Miranda Center for Hispanic Leadership at Vanguard University of Southern California in Costa Mesa.
Miranda and the Rev. Rodriguez said it was difficult to pin down the political leanings of Latino Protestants.
"They're conservative on faith and national security and more liberal in terms of immigration and economics," Miranda said.
More than 30% of the study's respondents said they would leave their political party if it did not find a more positive way to address immigration.
"Latino Protestants are the quintessential swing voters," Rodriguez said.