State of the Campaign #4: Catholics

“As Catholics go, so goes America,” religion scholar and Boston College professor Alan Wolfe recently wrote (happily, in the blurb for my book!). The quintessential swing voters for the past 35 years have been white ethnic Catholics living in suburbs in the Northeast and Midwest. They were the “Reagan Democrats” who returned to the Democratic fold to vote for Bill Clinton but who deserted one of their own, John Kerry, because he appeared more in touch with his wind-surfing board than he did with the culture of his co-religionists.

Barack Obama has a "Catholic problem." In the 2008 primaries, white, ethnic Catholics backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries, sometimes overwhelmingly. In Pennsylvania, she beat Obama 70 percent to 30 percent in the primary. The McCain campaign would not be doing its job if it had failed to notice that datum. Catholics remain a decisive voting bloc in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and New Hampshire, all swing states that are toss-ups, or barely leaning one way or the other.

This year, the Catholic swing voters in the Northeast and Midwest have been joined by a new group of swing voters, the Catholic Latinos in the Southwest. Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are all in the toss-up column. In 2004, George W. Bush garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote nationwide, a record for a GOP candidate. Currently, the most recent polls show Obama beating McCain among Latinos 70 to 30 percent. It will be impossible for McCain to win those three states unless he does better among Latinos than 30 percent. And Florida’s Latino vote is increasingly diverse as Puerto Ricans along the I-4 Corridor in Central Florida outnumber Cuban-Americans in Miami.

How to win the Catholic vote? Both parties have certain difficulties they must overcome if they are to meet with success in Catholic precincts. The GOP has become the party of social Darwinism, their economic policies are about the survival of the fittest, and they never speak about the common good except when invoking a vague, and militaristic, brand of patriotism. They remain the “pro-life” party but increasingly, many pro-life voters, especially younger pro-life voters, are questioning the value of carrying the GOP’s water: 35 years after Roe, what exactly does the pro-life movement have to show for its affiliation with the Republicans?

The Democrats are better than the GOP on social justices the church champions, but there is still an anti-religious bias that pops out. Obama’s comment about bitter, rural voters “clinging” to religion was an example. Still, Obama has gone far to end the days when pro-choice meant pro-abortion by supporting policies aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place and providing a social safety net to women who nonetheless find themselves facing a crisis pregnancy. And, he has reached out to religiously motivated voters in ways no Democrat has before. The fact that Doug Kmiec, a long-time conservative, pro-life legal scholar and Reagan appointee, has endorsed Obama tells you that the Democrats’ changes are making a difference.

For many white, ethnic Catholics Obama’s race remains a hurdle. The neighborhoods that were disrupted by bussing in the 1970s were often ethnic Catholic neighborhoods, and the experience spawned a great deal of racial animosity. As well, McCain’s heroism during the Vietnam War struck a chord with ethnic Catholics who supported that war and resented those who opposed it. More generally, the military was the means by which many Catholic families entered the mainstream of American culture: a grandfather or uncle served in World War II or Korea or Vietnam or the first Gulf War, and that experience stamped them as finally belonging, transcending their roots, becoming Americans. There is a reason John McCain’s military biography figured more prominently than his legislative history at the GOP convention.

For Latinos, the number one issue is immigration reform. In 2006, Latinos organized massive protest rallies that were frequently addressed by Catholic prelates. The rallies were used to do political organizing as well, and in the fall elections that year, Latinos were decisive in turning out anti-immigrant GOP congressmen in several districts, including two congressional seats in McCain home state of Arizona. In Iowa and Kansas, Catholic bishops have been on the front lines protesting government immigration raids. In Rhode Island, the Bishop of Providence has written to the Homeland Security Department protesting the raids.

There was a time when John McCain favored comprehensive and humane immigration reform that would require undocumented workers to pay a fine and move to the end of the line, but nonetheless put them on a path to citizenship. But, in order to secure the Republican nomination, McCain had to abandon that position and support more draconian measures and a border-security-first approach to the issue. (Building a fence will not do much to actually solve the problem: Many undocumented workers enter the country legally on tourist visas and simply overstay their allotted time.) Latinos once considered McCain a champion, and a lonely one in the GOP. Now, he more resembles Judas. The Democrats have so far failed to fully capitalize on the McCain camp’s forfeiture of the Latino vote by embracing a family-first immigration reform agenda, although Obama did mention the need to keep families together in his acceptance speech in Denver.

So, the Catholic vote may prove decisive and it is not at all clear yet who will win it. That guarantees one thing: a fascinating race.

Michael Sean Winters

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 3 months ago
A few years back in an article in America, it was suggested that we reregister as Independants. I did just that. The reasoning behind this is to send a message that we cannot be counted in either camp.The more who do this instead of just staying where they are shows there are not as many that fall in line at the polling place. That neither party fits our needs. Candidates look at the voting lists and target independents, finding out what they need to do to garner their votes. When it becomes apparent that there are issues on both sides that need to be addressed they (Democrats and Republicans) will begin to listen. Join me as an independant voter show both parties that we need to be listened to. Kathy Lyons
9 years 3 months ago
I have a nice, small apartment in the basement of my house. Two young undocumented immigrants live there rent free and they have dinner with me. This situation almost happened accidentally. Both of these young men are from Sinaloa, Mexico. Both of them send money to their wives and children back home. I am one of those Latino Catholics who would never vote for McCain and Palin. I am voting for Obama and Biden because we need a more just immigration policy in this country plus many other things. I think abortion is wrong. In the United States, however, the discussion about abortion is about one side accusing the other side of not respecting life and the other side accusing the other side of not respecting women. Both sides are lying.
9 years 3 months ago
Bud, I can. You continue to misrepresent Obama's position regarding legislation on partial birth abortions. He IS NOT in favor of partial birth abortion. He wants to develop plans to reduce the need for abortions.He is pro-choice, not pro-abortion. It does no good to present half-truths by misrepresenting what occurred. Who are you going to vote for? McCain is not totally pro-life. He supports abortion in the cases of incest and rape and he is for stem cell research. Hardly pro-life positions! When I look at the whole picture, it is apparent that McCain will continue the same failed economic policies of George Bush. The wealth will continue to trickle up to the few and will not trickle down to middle and lower income workers. The gap between the rich and the poor will continue to increase and the least among us will be even worse off. I will not even mention McCain's blind support for an immoral preemptive war condemned by Pope John Paul II and then Cardinal Ratzinger. Obama voted against this war! When I see the steady flow of lies from McCain's campaign, I must conclude that he is pro-lie! Bush used the same strategies during his quest for reelection. Look where it got us--lies and more lies to justify torture (an intrinsic evil like abortion), domestic spying and even more. Given all this, I can and will vote for Obama!
9 years 3 months ago
Very Comprehensive overview of what the catholic vote is.I have encountered so many of the variants you describe in your article.My hunch is that they will lean towards MCcain.Catholics are not convinced by Joe Biden and it is not only conservatives who see the Democratic policy of the only good catholic being a bad one.I think most of the Catholics I know in America like grit in their politicians.Clinton would represent that more than Obama.Joe Biden is more inline with an old school Catholicism.He is a throwback.John Kerry mark two.They regurgitate the same lines of deference ,which they believe is enough to get them off facing the issues of the day with a catholic conscience.MCcain is the least religious of the four candidates and so is a vacuum onto which people can project all of their wishful thinking.a la Reagan.Without a defined brand so to speak.Where Catholics will really count is in Pennsylvania.I predict on election night all eyes will be fixed on that 21 pointer.Good article with clear unbiased information.Breath of Fresh air
9 years 2 months ago
I see the arguments based on life issues made in support of & against the two major candidates. On other issues, I would tend to support Sen. Obama. When he was asked by Rick Warren when a child has human rights, he responded that the question was beyond his pay grade. I can not vote for a person who answers this question in that manner. A person who aspires to the highest position in our country's government, if he or she is to be a true leader, should have the courage to face & honestly answer the most difficult moral questions.
9 years 3 months ago
How can any Catholic vote for a pro abortion/partial birth abortion canidate? Bud McLaughlin

Advertisement
Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

As Pope Francis writes in “Laudato Si’,” we face “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”
Jim McDermottDecember 18, 2017
(Images: Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Commons, Antonio De Loera-Brust, Sikelia Productions; Illustration by Antonio De Loera-Brust) 
“Gangs of New York” reminds us that for as long as the United States has been a nation of immigrants, it has been infected by xenophobia.
Antonio De Loera-BrustDecember 18, 2017
South African Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, laughs at President Jacob Zuma, right, at the start of the ruling African National Congress elective conference in Johannesburg on Dec. 16. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)
Although Mr. Ramaphosa is a relatively acceptable leader of the A.N.C. in the eyes of some opposition parties, his economic stance will put him in tension with the populist left Economic Freedom Fighters and many trade unions.
Anthony EganDecember 18, 2017
The pope spoke Dec. 16 with members of the Italian Periodical Press Union and members of the Italian Federation of Catholic Weeklies, which represents nearly 200 Catholic newspapers.