Thursday, September 11, 2008

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


Jim Belna said...

I suppose that once Michael Sean wrote a book claiming that Democrats are more pro-life than Republicans, we can't really be surprised that he would call white ethnic Catholics who don't agree with his remarkable theory racists. As to what the pro-life movement has to show for its 35-year affiliation with the Republicans, how about ITS VERY EXISTENCE? The Republicans may not be perfect, but they have kept faith with us; they have always nominated pro-life candidates for national office; they have tried (and occasionally succeeded) in nominating judges who refuse to read abortion rights into the Constitution; and they have moved the ball much farther down the field than Michael Sean gives them credit for - unless you think that parental consent, the born-alive infant protection act, and the ban on partial-birth abortion are meaningless gestures.

But even if the Republicans have fallen short of the mark, to whom else shall we go? If pro-lifers had to count on the Democrats, the movement would have been "D&C'd" decades ago. In case anyone hasn't gotten the message. just read the 2008 Platform: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." What part of "taxpayer-funded abortion on demand, forever and ever Amen" is supposed to be winning over pro-life Catholic voters?

Pure Waste said...

Obama himself comes from a minority background. And McCain took a much-publicized visit to Mexico this year. It is clear, that both parties are trying to get Latinos votes.
Both presidential candidates did not yet touched problems of emigration, education or any other Latinos' problems in their speeches.
Will any of them stop ignoring this community and try to take their votes? Will it be Obama, or McCain?

Anonymous said...

The above posting “State of the Campaign #4: Catholics” makes a valid point that the Catholic vote will play a large role in this upcoming election. However, I feel that the post over simplified the viewpoints of the Catholic voter. It states that many Catholics have difficulty overcoming Obama’s race, focus on the Pro-Life issue, and supporting McCain due to identifying with his military past. While, these points will effect some voters opinions, I believe or at least hope that most voters regardless of religion will not (or at least should) not be persuaded by these points. Though Catholics definitely weigh issues such as Pro-Life attitudes in their presidential choice, is not the sole determining factor. Our president should be chosen because of policies and viewpoints we agree with rather than because he is similar to us or different from us, which is hopefully the attitude of all of us. However, I may just be over estimating the American public who may vote for someone just because they like them. Regardless of the voting attitude of the American public, the author of the original post is definitely right in stating this year’s election “guarantees one thing: a fascinating race

Joe Kozlowski