CatholicVote.org co-founder Joshua Mercer on winning over Catholic voters in 2016
Joshua Mercer is co-founder and political director of CatholicVote.org, an independent, conservative non-profit advocacy group. A project of the Catholic non-profit Fidelis, CatholicVote’s stated goal is “electing new pro-life and pro-family candidates to Congress and, of course, electing a pro-life candidate to the Presidency.” He also serves as a bimonthly columnist with Catholic Pulse.
Mr. Mercer holds a B.A. in political economy from Hillsdale College. He previously served as Washington Correspondent for the National Catholic Register, Chairman for Students for Life of America and director of a Catholic retreat house. He lives in Michigan with his wife and six children.
On Oct. 1, I interviewed Mr. Mercer by email about his work and about Catholic voters in the upcoming presidential election season.
CatholicVote’s goal of supporting pro-life and pro-family candidates seems tailor-made to favor Republican candidates, but the GOP now seems to have been taken over by the Tea Party, which has been ousting Catholic party leaders like House Speaker John Boehner in favor of Republicans from evangelical Protestant backgrounds. What must Republicans do to win Catholic votes in the 2016 presidential election cycle?
Sadly we have not seen Democratic candidates compete for pro-life and pro-family voters. There are exceptions of course. We have happily endorsed Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Illinois. I wish there were more Democratic candidates fighting for pro-life and pro-family voters and support.
As for the Tea Party, they do not have command of the Republican Party. But you're right that they exerted their influence to force John Boehner to resign. That's because of the House's unique rules on the election of Speaker. This won't work the same way against Mitch McConnell in the Senate.
Data from Pew Research indicates that the Republican Party has done very well with white Catholics over the last decade. That might seem like a no-brainer to us today, but this is historically very significant. And it's one reason why the Republican Party is doing so well in non-presidential years. But if the Republican Party wants to win the White House, they need to do better with Catholics in presidential years. The last Republican to win the overall Catholic vote was George W. Bush in 2004. Bush won 56 percent of the white Catholic vote, but Mitt Romney did better among white Catholics, winning 59 percent. So what was the difference? Bush won 33 percent of Hispanic Catholic voters but Romney could only muster 21 percent.
Although many Catholic voters feel uncomfortable with the Democratic Party’s pro-choice platform, Democrats continue to win a fair share of the Catholic vote through their social justice rhetoric, and Vice President Biden recently told America there is “absolutely” a place for pro-life voters in his party. What must Democrats do to win Catholic votes in the 2016 election cycle?
The Joe Biden style of Democrat has definite nostalgic appeal for many Catholic Democrats. But in the 2012 election, Obama won just 40 percent of white Catholics. Obama barely won the overall Catholic vote, but that was because the Hispanic population is growing so fast and because Romney did so poorly among these voters. There will be fewer and fewer blue-collar white Democrats, like Biden, who pay lip service to the pro-life position, even casting the occasional vote to the pro-life side. Catholic Democrats of the 21st century will look more like Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, whose support for legal abortion shows no 1970s Catholic guilt. Castro doesn't offer any Biden-style hesitation. He gives legal abortion his full support. After all, he campaigned for strident supporters of abortion like Wendy Davis.
Who do you predict will be the next Republican and Democratic presidential nominees?
I correctly predicted Boehner would quit the day after the pope's address to Congress, but I didn't post it on Twitter so I can't prove it! But I'm not sure that means I'm getting better at predicting things. I have long thought that Hillary Clinton was vulnerable because she is just not that good of a candidate. That's not an assessment of her policies, but of her ability to connect with voters. She is too risk-averse and poll-tested to excite and inspire Democratic primary voters. She campaigns like a robot. But the Democrats today are facing the same problem the GOP had in 2008: Who else? Bernie Sanders is lighting up the base and raking in donations like mad. But he is a proud Socialist, and would definitely face vulnerabilities as a general election candidate. Joe Biden remains the best alternative to Hillary, and I think he is a strong candidate that the GOP would do well not to underestimate. But Joe Biden will be 74 on Election Day in 2016. He could answer that concern by only pledging one term. So far, though, it looks like Biden is opting against running.
On the Republican side, it's helpful to look not just at the polls, but at those polls which ask people for their second pick. What you discover is that Trump might lead in the polls right now, but that he is almost no one's second pick, and that he has a ceiling of support. In fact, a majority of Republican voters say they won't vote for him. Looking at everyone's second pick helps you to guess whom might gain support as other candidates leave the race. And when they ask that question one name stands out: Marco Rubio.
What are your particular goals for the upcoming election cycle?
The United States should not be one of only seven countries which allow abortions in the fifth month for almost any reason. That's an embarrassment. And now that the Supreme Court has forced same-sex marriage in all 50 states, we should ensure robust religious liberty protections for those people who have deep religious objections to participating in such ceremonies. Both of these policies enjoy majority support from Americans on both sides of each of those debates. It's common ground. Unfortunately every Democratic presidential candidate would veto them both.
How will CatholicVote pursue these goals?
We will educate Catholics about these policies and encourage them to vote for candidates who will support this legislation. On religious liberty and the protection of human life, Catholics face uneven support from Republicans. Some favor it strongly, others are timid. The other political party has more unity, but it's not for the better. Democrats are downright hostile on limiting abortion or strengthening religious liberty.
Besides pro-life and pro-family issues, what are some other things Catholic voters should pay attention to when choosing candidates for public office?
Every bishop will tell you about the need to protect religious liberty. The attacks on our religious liberty are not just related to the change in marriage. After all, the Obama administration is forcing Catholic nuns to pay for contraception, which is not only morally objectionable, but also ridiculous since they are celibate. Religious schools have also faced attacks on religious liberty.
During the 1980s, Native Americans lost some religious liberty rights because of the War on Drugs. Certain drugs used in religious ceremonies were federally prohibited. When the Supreme Court refused to defend their First Amendment right to religious liberty, Congress swung into action and passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was co-sponsored by New York liberal Chuck Schumer, and was passed by lopsided majorities in both houses, and signed into law by a Democratic president. Today that's changed. The Democratic Party thinks religious liberty is O.K. for smoking peyote, but it doesn't cover wedding cakes. And that's a shame.
Why would Catholic voters feel attracted to political conservatives in the upcoming election?
I did say that white blue-collar Democrats are becoming a smaller piece of the electorate every year, but there still are quite a few such voters—especially in Pennsylvania. I think the Republican Party can win them over by appealing to them on religious liberty and the sanctity of human life. But to be truly effective, the Republican Party has to drop the Romney-esque rhetoric of the moochers and the 47 percent. It's the polar opposite of Ronald Reagan, who talked about a shining city on the hill and a rising tide lifting all boats. Romney couldn't win blue-collar white voters, but Reagan could.
Why would Catholic voters avoid political conservatives in the upcoming election?
I do not think the GOP will nominate Donald Trump, but if they do he will repel many voters who would otherwise be sympathetic to a conservative message. Ironically, his policies on taxes and health care are rather moderate, even liberal leaning, but his rhetoric is absolutely toxic. Scott Walker had the chance to provide an alternative vision, of a Midwestern Republican who was fighting for government reform because the taxpayer deserved a better government than they were getting. But Walker tried to out-Trump the Donald, and now he's out of the race. Jeb Bush is running a campaign stuck in 2002, and he's saddled with his brother's legacy whether he likes it or not.
Marco Rubio is so far the only Republican candidate with a consistently positive message. Rubio just announced a plan to give tax credits to businesses which offer generous paid leave. It's possible that this issue isn't on the forefront for many Republican primary voters, but it's an issue that a Republican needs to be talking about if winning the White House is the goal. If Rubio were to win the nomination, he would be a formidable candidate.
Why would Catholic voters feel attracted to political liberals in the upcoming election?
If Republicans embrace class warfare rhetoric like they did with Romney, then liberals will have the ability to win over Catholic voters on the basic question of “who do you trust to look out for you.” It's the most important question in politics. You never know what issue might come up, so you want a president who shares your values and perspectives. There's no doubt that for a majority of Americans, Mitt Romney was not that person in 2012.
Why would Catholic voters avoid political liberals in the upcoming election?
Liberals seem unwilling to find any common ground on abortion or religious liberty. Unlike Democrats of the 1990s, they're not even pretending to soften their rhetoric on abortion anymore. But they will also have to defend the economic record of Barack Obama, which has remained stagnant and caused high unemployment for lots of people, especially the young. I give credit to Democrat Bernie Sanders who has the honesty to admit that Obama's unemployment numbers are bogus because they no longer count people who have given up looking for a job. Sanders correctly points out that the real unemployment figure is 10.3 percent. Unfortunately, Sanders's solution is Obama's big government policies on steroids.
What have been the biggest accomplishments of CatholicVote.org since you co-founded it with Brian Burch in October 2008?
Over the last decade, Catholic voters have been more willing to support candidates who are pro-life and pro-family. For far too long politicians would mouth a few platitudes like "safe, legal, and rare" to assuage Catholic voters. But Catholic voters have realized that this moderate rhetoric always takes the back seat once the votes are cast in Congress. Pro-life Democrats are nearly extinct. That is driving more and more Catholics to the GOP.
What have been your group’s biggest struggles?
The Catholic Church is said to be obsessed about abortion and gay marriage. But I was 35 years old before I heard a Catholic priest mention "abortion" in a homily. Some obsession. So while I'm happy that the U.S. bishops issue press releases and statements about the dignity of human life, I do wish that priests and bishops would speak from their heart at the pulpit—rather than only on paper.
How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a husband and father?
I remember when Pope Francis called on parents to put down their phones and “waste” time with their children. Of course, he meant that it's not a “waste” of time at all, and that we need to break free from our distractions and remember why we are here. And my mission, like Saint Joseph's, is to serve my wife and children, and get them into Heaven.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Peter is my favorite apostle. He's an unlearned fisherman, and his language was likely salty like the Dead Sea. He was feisty, even rash. But in the end, Jesus entrusted him to lead his fledgling church. And because he knew he was such a sinner, he refused to be killed in the same manner as his savior. He asked to be crucified upside down. And it was Peter who said: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope." (1 Peter 3:15). When people see Christians, do they see that hope? Do they see Jesus? It's a call for us all to be better.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Catholics and American politics, what would it be?
I would beg his forgiveness for how corrupted our politics have become because of abortion. The party once committed to helping the little guy now turns a cold shoulder to children in the womb. I also think conservatives show a lack of compassion when considering the plight of Mexicans who come into our country. Conservatives do have a point, though. The United States has had a very generous immigration policy on our books for 50 years in a row. And many people feel like they are being taken advantage of because of illegal immigration.
We need a solution to our southern border. But I think it would help if more Americans had a sense of solidarity for people who are fleeing poverty. We can't only see the money we have to spend building more schools. I agree it's not fair to pay more taxes because of someone else's illegal activity. But if we were more honest, we might admit that we'd also cross a border to escape poverty and put food on the table for our family.
What tensions have you experienced in the past between your faith and political work?
Christianity calls us to moral principles. We are called to affirm the dignity of everyone we see, to recognize that each person is an unrepeatable image of the face of God. The constant temptation of people in politics is focused on power. Do we have the votes we need to get this passed? How will this group react to this? Pope Francis was right when he addressed Congress. We need more of a focus on the common good.
What do U.S. Catholics most need right now in American politics?
Catholics in both political parties should be beacons of light. Catholics in the GOP need to welcome the stranger, and learn to walk a mile in another's shoes. Catholics in the Democratic Party have to pry their party away from its strident support for legal abortion.
What are your hopes for the future?
A renewal of a strong marriage culture would truly be the tide that raises all boats. It would reduce crime, lower poverty, reduce animosity between the sexes, soften our coarse culture and help us all to make decisions not just for our current self-interest but for future generations.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
I think the modern media environment is horrible. We all lead busy lives, so a certain level of ignorance about news and politics is perfectly understandable. But MSNBC and Fox News both cash checks by simply affirming their audiences’ biases, rather than educating or challenging them. That's why I see the work of CatholicVote as so important. We're dedicated to helping Catholics cut through the clutter and learn about the very real and important public policy debates we're facing today.
Any final thoughts?
Pope Francis said that Christians can't be like Pontius Pilate and wash our hands of politics. It can be messy. It can produce much more heat than light. But will politics be better if Christians remove themselves? Of course not. Let's be the salt and light of the world.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.