The Republican Party continues to lose the Hispanic vote in ever-increasing numbers. After George W. Bush won upwards of 40 percent of Latinos in 2004, Mitt Romney took just 27 percent of them in 2012.
This trend is especially frustrating for GOP leaders who — rightly — point out that Hispanics are actually pretty religious and socially conservative. This, they argue, should draw more Hispanics toward the GOP.
But this analysis also misses some vital points. And in their quest to woo Latinos, Republicans really shouldn't count on religiosity to move the needle in their favor, for a few reasons:
1) Latinos are leaving church — fast
According to a new report from the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, 18 percent of Hispanics identify as "unaffiliated." That might not seem like a lot, but that number has almost doubled in the past three years alone, from 10 percent in 2010.
If you project that trend over the next couple decades, you would have more than half of the Latino population being unaffiliated by the 2028 presidential election.
We're not saying that's going to happen — indeed, it's quite hard to believe it would — but it shows what a significant shift has taken place.
So why are Latinos becoming less religious? Because they're getting younger. While just 11 percent of Latinos over 50 don't affiliate with a church, 31 percent of those between 18 and 29 are unaffiliated, and that number has more than doubled in the past three years.
Given the fast-growing young Latino population — more than half are under 30 — that suggests that this trend will continue to a significant degree, as the Latino voter base becomes even more heavily weighted toward this younger demographic.
(It's also worth noting that even middle-aged and older Latinos are increasing less likely to affiliate with a church.)
Unaffiliated voters, as one might expect, are more Democratic than religious voters. While Latinos favor Democrats 56-21 overall, unaffiliated Latinos favor them 64-16.
2) In politics, not all Christians are the same
Among the Hispanics who continue to affiliate with a church, just 22 percent are Protestant — compared to more than half of the United States population.
Why is that important? Because Protestants — and especially evangelicals — are much more likely to be Republicans than Catholics are. In fact, the only Christian group that skews heavily GOP is evangelicals, and only 16 percent of Hispanics affiliate with evangelicals.
(For more on the differences between Christian groups, see this recent Pew study, which found that about half of white Catholics and mainline Protestants were Republicans, compared to 70 percent of white evangelicals.)
The fact that the Hispanic population is still dominated by Catholics —and increasingly unaffiliateds — means it's much less likely to swing to the GOP.
If a bigger portion of Hispanics were evangelical, the GOP would likely be doing better. But even then, it's not completely clear, because ...
3) The GOP can't even count on Hispanic evangelicals
Given that evangelicals are the most GOP-friendly group, Republicans are probably encouraged that the percentage of Hispanics identifying as evangelicals is rising. It increased from 12 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2013, according to the report.
But a closer look suggests that that trend might not continue.
Almost all of the increase occurred among foreign-born and middle-aged Hispanics. Among the fast-growing 18-to-29-year-old population, the percentage who align with evangelicals went up just two points — a statistically insignificant shift.
Also — and here's the kicker — even if Hispanics do become evangelicals, they're still more likely to favor Democrats (48 percent) than Republicans (30 percent).
4) Social conservatism isn't a voting issue
When it comes to issues like abortion, Hispanics are indeed more conservative than the United States as a whole.
In total, 53 percent of Hispanics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 40 percent say it should be completely or mostly legal.
But it's also pretty clear that many Hispanics don't really vote on those issues.
Take evangelical Hispanics; 70 percent of them say abortion should be almost completely or mostly illegal and 66 percent oppose gay marriage, but they still align with Democrats by a significant margin, 48-30.
So even among the most GOP-friendly Hispanic religious demographic, Republicans are fighting a losing battle.
Some Republicans might contend that their party isn't doing a good enough job emphasizing social issues to these voters. It's more likely that these voters care much more about other issues — issues on which the GOP just happens to have increasingly less appeal to the Hispanic population.