Many of his fellow evangelical worshipers at a large Latino church in Central Florida will probably vote for Trump, too.
“When I think about politics overall, I’m always looking at things through my religious upbringing,” said Vazquez, 51, who lives in a suburb of Orlando. “And when I compare Trump to Biden, Trump is just closer to what I believe.”
“Trump has his flaws,” he added. “There are things he does that I do not agree with. But that’s politics.”
Vazquez is one of millions of evangelical Christian Latinos in the United States whose political calculations could carry outsize influence in the 2020 election, especially in Florida. Although he may defy expectations for voters of Puerto Rican descent, who like a majority of Latinos nationally lean Democratic, Vazquez said Republicans have simply made a stronger case to him.
While the GOP’s traditional strength among Cuban Americans is well understood, the party’s appeal to born-again religious voters of Caribbean and Latin American descent in recent years has received far less attention. Now, Republicans hope these voters will further chip away at the margins of Joe Biden’s support in Florida among Latinos. Despite the administration’s hard-line immigration policies and much-criticized response after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, some recent polls have shown the president narrowly beating Biden among Latinos overall in Florida.
“Evangelicals value life, freedom, and limited government — values President Trump is fighting to protect,” Ali Pardo, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, said in a statement. “While Joe Biden’s campaign tries to hide his nearly half-century record of failure that focused on winning over American socialists and appeasing Latin American dictators, our campaign is on the ground in Florida connecting directly with Latino and Evangelical Communities.”
That message has resonated with some voters, even though Biden is a moderate Democrat who has rejected many ideas from his party’s left flank, such as defunding the police and the “Green New Deal.” In a tight race, even a small number of voters could make a difference.
And the Trump campaign’s efforts to win over more Latino voters run through churches such as the one Vazquez belongs to, which is Pentecostal.
The political courtship has transpired pew by pew, said several evangelical faith leaders and Florida political strategists, who describe how the Trump campaign has carefully targeted evangelical Latinos with political recognition, high-profile surrogates and digital ads. Throughout this year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump campaign has hosted dozens of virtual events with Latino evangelical worshipers.
The Biden campaign launched a Latino-focused faith outreach program more recently, in mid-September.
It is a missed opportunity for Democrats, said the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., an evangelical leader in Philadelphia. Cortés said Latino evangelicals are less conservative than White evangelicals and are open to Democratic priorities such as racial justice and a strong social safety net, especially now that the pandemic is disproportionately hurting Latino communities.
“Hispanic evangelicals are not a monolith,” Cortés said. “They are not all straight-line culture-issue voters. Some people will vote on the basis of schools, others on the basis of jobs.”
He added: “And there's a bigger group that is starting to . . . ask what it means to be pro-life. Is pro-life a person who fights for a child to be born and then abandons the child from a moment of birth?”
“My opinion is that [Democrats] don’t know how to speak to us,” he said. “And as a result, they lose votes.”
There is limited public polling of these voters, and the campaigns declined to share internal polling data. A recent analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that Trump’s personal favorability rating among Hispanic protestants nationally grew by double digits between 2019 and 2020, from 37 percent to 50 percent.
An estimated 3.1 million Latinos are eligible to vote in Florida, where they make up about 20 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center, out of an overall Latino population of 5.7 million. About 1 in 5 Florida Latinos identified as Protestant in 2019, according to numbers published by PRRI’s American Values Atlas, about half as many as identified as Catholic.
The Republican efforts to appeal to Latino evangelicals are designed to build on the party’s success at organizing among White religious voters, dating to the alignment of conservative politics with Christian organizations such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority.
Growing up in evangelical churches, Vazquez said, he felt seen and respected. He was even given opportunities as a child to help lead worship services and to occasionally deliver short sermons. Church was foundational not only in terms of providing a sense of community but also in creating opportunities for leadership.
Today, Vazquez has nuanced political views that reflect various facets of his life, including his Puerto Rican ancestry and New York roots, but his primary views are informed by church fellowship.
Vazquez said he supports strong border enforcement because allowing people to live in the country illegally leaves them open to being exploited for their labor. He would like to see an immigration overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for those who are already in the country. Asked whether he is bothered by Trump’s dark rhetoric about immigrants, Vazquez said politicians on the left also use illegal immigration to rile up political passions without doing anything to help those migrants.
While he personally opposes abortion, he said he is wary of the Supreme Court becoming overly political and believes in a separation between church and state.
“If everything went according to our biblical point of you, yes, we would be happy,” he said. “But the United States was not based only on a biblical point of view. Our country is based on the Constitution.”
In any case, his mind is made up. Vazquez will vote for Trump, as he did in 2016.
These days, he barely skims the mountains of political mailers he receives. Trump’s recent coronavirus diagnosis, for all the attention it has received, did not change his mind. “I appreciated his comment about not letting fear rule our lives,” Vazquez said of Trump. “For me, it demonstrates courage to move forward.”
The Biden campaign has expanded its outreach to religious Latino voters in recent weeks, said Josh Dickson, who joined the campaign as faith engagement director in August. The campaign also recently announced a seven-figure advertising campaign in several battleground states, including Florida, to target religious voters.
“We’re taught to seek to serve and not to be served,” Dickson said. “And that’s the exact opposite of what we see from this administration.”
But some say the Democrats are years behind.
Fernand Amandi, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist in Florida, recalled the aggressive play for religious Hispanic voters George W. Bush made during his presidential campaign 20 years ago. By 2004, Bush was able to get about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to national exit polls. Amandi said Bush accomplished that in part by tapping into the organizing power of evangelical Latino churches.
“The Republicans out-hustle and outfox the Democrats,” he said, “so that rather than losing by what they typically should be losing the Hispanic vote by — 30 points or more — they only lose by 20 or 15 or five points.”
Amandi said Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, which he advised, was successful in part because of in-depth research and early outreach to Latinos.
Pablo Jiménez, an instructor of pastoral theology in Charlotte, lamented that Democratic political candidates have not done more outreach to religious voters outside Black churches. Jiménez, a political independent who dislikes Trump, said that could be accomplished by framing “pro-life” policies to religious voters beyond the fight over abortion rights to include positions on welfare for the poor, education and health care, to name a few.
“If you ask me why so many Latinos are moving to a more conservative camp politically, it is very, very, very simple — because Republicans ask for their vote,” said Jiménez, associate dean of Hispanic ministries at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Jiménez said he has also seen evangelicals bombarded by anti-Biden falsehoods being spread on the Internet, some targeting the former vice president for his Catholic faith.
A pastor who Jiménez said “is like a mother to me” recently sent him a list of baseless claims, including one that insisted Biden would bring the entire world under a single global currency as part of an insidious power play. Another warned non-Catholic religious voters that Biden would bring their faiths under the rule of the pope.
“I have had friends telling me that they’ve been marginalized in their church because they’re not peddling right-wing stuff or conspiracy theories,” Jiménez said.
These trends have collided in Orlando, seen as a crucial battleground for Democrats seeking to counterbalance the GOP’s strength among Cuban Americans in South Florida. Among the influx of Puerto Rican voters who have arrived since Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017, many have conservative religious and political leanings.
While many Puerto Ricans are angry at the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, factors such as religious affiliation can influence their vote as well in ways that are not always understood by political strategists.
“The Puerto Rican community in Orlando differs from those in New York or Philly or Chicago, because you have a very large number of people coming from the island as well as other parts of the United States, and that’s where you will find a larger number of people sympathizing with the Republican Party,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute in Miami.
Many of them identify as White, he added, which may also diminish the strength of the Democrats’ messaging on racial justice.
“It would be a mistake to take us for granted, to say, ‘Oh, they’re Latino, so they’ll vote Democrat,’ or, ‘Oh they’re evangelical so they’ll vote Republican.’ What happens when you live in both identities?” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, who is president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and delivered the opening prayer of the Democratic National Convention in August.
And their strength could extend beyond the 2020 election.
Latino evangelicals are the fastest-growing group of evangelicals in the United States, he said, “and many live in Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada.”
Meanwhile, with this year’s election underway, Vazquez knows that liberals are apt to criticize Latinos who vote for Trump.
But he wishes voters like him could be seen with more complexity.
“I have not always voted Republican. And even in the most recent elections, some of my statewide elected preferences were not all Republicans,” he said.
“People just want to hear opinions they agree with. And if you don’t agree, they feel free to bash you.”