By Emily Stimpson
Why does the Catholic vote matter in 2008?
Because since 1972, no U.S. presidential candidate has won the popular vote without also winning the Catholic vote.
Unlike the African-American or evangelical vote, the Catholic vote isn't monolithic. It's been almost 50 years since Catholics, who make up 20 percent of the electorate, gave more than 75 percent of their vote to any one candidate. And therein lies its power.
According to pollster Steve Wagner of QEV Analytics, although Catholics were once considered a key Democratic constituency, in recent decades the concern of many Catholics for "the unborn, traditional marriage and the right of the Church to express its conscience in the public square" has outweighed their sympathy with Democrats on other issues.
Some of those Catholics have given up on Democrats altogether, aligning themselves solidly with Republicans, while others still migrate back and forth between parties.
In close contests, those Catholic swing voters add up, which is why, said Wagner, "in every election both parties are now fighting for the Catholic vote."
In 2004, the Republicans won that fight, with President Bush capturing the votes of 52 percent of all self-identified Catholics and 56 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more.
The reason for that, said Josh Mercer, communications director for the Catholic advocacy group Fidelis, was "Bush's defense of the marriage amendment and his strong stance on behalf of the unborn."
The importance of Bush's Catholic appeal in 2004 has not been lost on this year's presidential hopefuls. In recent months, all have recruited key Catholic advisers to their teams and stressed their positions on issues that resonate with Catholics.
Before officially launching his campaign,former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson hired Catholic political activist Joe Cella to direct his Catholic outreach efforts. Massachusetts' former Gov. Mitt Romney recruited veteran Catholic Peter G. Flaherty to help run his campaign, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has Catholic political strategist Ed Rollins in his corner.
Similarly, as Arizona Sen. John McCain's bid for the presidency picks up steam, he's made the support of Catholics an official part of his campaign, tasking Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating with organizing the National Steering Committee of Catholics for McCain. That committee now resembles a "Who's Who" of prominent Catholic intellectuals, with Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley and Catholic activists Austin and Cathy Ruse most recently joining up.
Also, with the exception of Rudy Giuliani, all the leading Republican contenders have trumpeted their pro-life, pro-family beliefs, positioning themselves as the best defender of the traditional values that won Bush the Catholic vote in 2004.
On the Democratic side, John Edwards has been stumping with former Michigan congressman (and former seminarian) David Bonior, while all three of the leading Democratic contenders -- Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- have hired consultants to shepherd their own faith and values steering committees.
Additionally, unlike Democratic candidates in the recent past, Clinton and Obama are making an appeal for the pro-life vote by pitching programs that would reduce the number of abortions without outlawing abortion outright.
Behind the scenes, both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee are likewise preparing to court the Catholic vote.
According to the RNC's deputy director of coalitions, Cahleen Hegarty, since 2000 the RNC has had a Catholic outreach director working to build networks with Catholics and recruit Catholic volunteers.
Three years ago, the DNC began following suit, launching "Faith in Action," an outreach effort aimed at bringing religious voters back into the fold. Then in 2006, they hired their own Catholic outreach director, a position currently held by John Kelly.
According to Kelly, he spent the bulk of last year meeting with Catholic leaders and working with Democrats to shape a message targeted to appeal to Catholic and other religious voters, a message "based on the conviction to work with people around shared values."
That message, DNC press secretary Stacie Paxton added, includes a vision of values that goes beyond abortion and same-sex marriage to encompass "aid for the poor, the environment, war in Iraq, health care and education."
In other words, a message crafted to appeal to Catholics' social justice sensibilities.
Whose efforts will pay off the most on Election Day?
According to Wagner, much depends on who the Republican nominee is.
"The life issue is sine qua non for many Catholic voters," he explained. "If the Republicans nominate someone who is equivocal on the life issue, then the social justice appeal being crafted by the Democrats will work."
But, with looming problems in the economy, he added, simply being pro-life won't be enough for the Republican nominee to hold on to the Catholic votes Bush won in 2004.
"The Republican candidate has to go toe to toe on what is in the best interest of the poor; they have to be aggressive in articulating their concept of social justice," Wagner said.
And so far, Mercer doesn't think any of the Republican contenders are consistently doing that in a way that appeals to Catholics.
"Bush was good at 'talking Catholic,'" explained Mercer. "'Compassionate conservatism' resonated with Catholic voters and was very targeted toward winning over Catholic support. None of the current Republican candidates have yet mastered those issues in the same way."
If that changes in the coming months, however, Wagner believes the Catholic vote is the Republicans to lose.
"Democrats have awakened to the fact that they aren't appealing to voters of faith and realize they can't allow this to continue," said Wagner. "But, unfortunately, they can't jettison the key constituencies that hurt their appeal in the first place -- the pro-abortion voters and the more extreme homosexual constituency trying to redefine marriage."
Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs