Going back to Ronald Reagan, the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesús—the senior pastor of a 4,500-member Hispanic evangelical church in Chicago—has pulled the lever for Republicans in presidential elections. "I always voted on the issue of abortion and the sanctity of marriage," he says. This time, though, Sen. Barack Obama's message of faith and social justice, combined with strident GOP rhetoric on illegal immigration, has persuaded him to endorse the Democrat. That switch illustrates the extent to which the Latino evangelical vote is in play—a development that could prove decisive on Nov. 4. Though polls show Obama beating Sen. John McCain among Hispanics as a whole by roughly 30 points, Hispanic evangelicals are a tougher sell. In 2004, 63 percent of them voted for President Bush.
Comprising about one third of Hispanic voters overall, evangelicals are more affluent, more likely to be citizens and more likely to vote than non-evangelicals. (Hispanics make up 15 percent of the U.S. population.) They're difficult to categorize—conservative on social issues, but liberal on economic ones. Unlike white evangelicals, who are often wedge-issue driven, they "tend to look at a candidate in a more holistic fashion," weighing stances on matters as diverse as poverty and the death penalty, says Claremont McKenna College professor Gaston Espinosa. "Having said that, abortion and the same-sex marriage issue are very important." Neither candidate quite fits the bill. Though McCain is pro-life, he's fiscally conservative, and he backtracked on immigration reform during the primaries. Obama supports legalizing immigrants, but he's also pro-choice.
By most accounts, the Obama campaign has been more aggressive in wooing Latino evangelicals. It's reaching out regularly to pastors, organizing conference calls for them to question the candidate and sponsoring faith forums for voters. (The McCain campaign didn't respond to repeated requests to describe its activities.) "It's a really tough decision for me," says Richard Ramos, an evangelical who works at a faith-based nonprofit and voted for Bush twice. This time? He's got two months to make up his mind.