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Courting Catholics in 2008

The presidential candidates have recently intensified their efforts to woo Catholic voters, underscoring the election-year significance of this key swing constituency. Pew Forum Senior Fellow John Green discusses Catholic voting trends in past elections, the challenges facing the campaigns as they reach out to Catholics and how the church’s growing Hispanic population may impact future elections.

Featuring: John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Publishing, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A: Voting trends in past elections Catholic outreach strategies The Hagee controversy Clinton’s Catholic support The impact of Hispanics

John Green

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Washington on April 15 to begin what will be his first visit to the United States. Is such a visit during an election year likely to have an effect on Catholic voters?

The visit is unlikely to have a direct impact on many voters because the pope is unlikely to endorse a particular candidate or to take a position on the different controversies in American elections. However, his visit could have an important indirect effect on Catholics. The pope is very likely to talk about issues, and issues can matter to voters. For example, if he stresses conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, that may energize conservative Catholics. And if he speaks out against the Iraq war or talks about social welfare issues and immigration, that may energize the liberal Catholic left. If he talks about all those issues, he may energize a variety of Catholic voters.

Have Catholics historically tended to vote Republican or Democratic, or have they been swing voters?

One of the most enduring images in American politics is of the New Deal coalition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the 1930s and 1940s. One of the pillars of the New Deal coalition was the strong Democratic support of white Catholics, that is, Catholics of European ancestry. This image has stuck in many people’s minds; however, it is no longer accurate. The high point of the Democratic identification among Catholics came in 1960 when one of their own, John F. Kennedy, ran for the presidency and became the first and only Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States.

But since then, Catholics have become markedly less Democratic. Starting in the 1970s a strong Republican contingent began to develop among white Catholics, and many Catholics became independents. Many Catholics are swing voters, switching between the Democrats and the Republicans depending on the candidates and the issues in campaigns. In fact, some pundits argue that as the Catholic swing vote goes, so goes the presidential election.

Today, Catholics are quite divided politically. What we have is not one Catholic vote but several different Catholic votes: a Catholic Republican vote, a Catholic swing vote and a Catholic Democratic vote, which includes most minority Catholics. Among white Catholics, these differences are based in part on Mass attendance and religious beliefs. For example, more-observant Catholics tend to vote Republican while less-observant Catholics tend to vote Democratic.

In 2004, President Bush, a Methodist, won a majority of the Catholic vote even though his opponent, John Kerry, is a Roman Catholic. What was Bush’s Catholic outreach strategy and why was it so successful?

One of the reasons that President Bush was successful with the Catholic vote in 2004 was because of the problems John Kerry had with his fellow Catholics. There were some prominent church leaders, for instance, who said they wouldn’t administer Communion to John Kerry because he was in favor of abortion rights. Thus there was quite a debate within the Catholic community about John Kerry. This debate reveals how much Catholic politics has changed since the days of the New Deal coalition. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, one of the big questions a lot of Americans had was this: Is John Kennedy too Catholic to be the president of a country where the majority of the people are Protestant? By the time John Kerry ran in 2004, there were many Americans, including a lot of Roman Catholics, who wondered if he was Catholic enough to be a good president.

But Kerry’s problems aside, President Bush and the Republican Party worked very, very hard to court Catholic voters. There was quite a concerted campaign to mobilize the votes of Catholics, particularly conservative Catholics, but also Catholic swing voters.

There were several important elements to this effort. First, President Bush had many appearances with Catholic leaders, going out of his way to be seen with the bishops and cardinals. He spoke at Catholic institutions like the University of Notre Dame and the national convention of the Knights of Columbus. In these venues, Bush routinely quoted important Catholic figures and played up his visits with Pope John Paul II. Second, the Republicans worked very hard to organize grassroots activists within the Catholic community. In fact, one of the categories of the GOP’s “team leaders” in the 2004 campaign was Catholics, and a similar effort persists today.

Third, President Bush also made a real effort to stress issues that would appeal to elements of the Catholic community. He talked a lot about his faith-based initiative,abortion and the “culture of life” as well as opposition to same-sex marriage. Echoing back to the 2000 campaign, he talked a great deal about being a “compassionate conservative,” an idea that resonated very well with many Roman Catholics. And finally, the Bush campaign included Catholics in their “microtargeting” of voters, which allowed the campaign to deliver a very specific message to Catholic voters.

President Bush was rewarded for this overall effort in November 2004 when he won an absolute majority of the Catholic vote and received a solid majority of the white Catholic vote.

What lessons did both Democrats and Republicans learn from 2004 and what are they doing differently this year in their outreach to Catholic voters?

Republicans and Democrats learned essentially the same lesson from the 2004 campaign: Catholic voters matter, and they can be brought into either party’s column.

The Republicans, of course, are looking to replicate Bush’s 2004 success with Sen. McCain. On the other hand, there is quite an effort among the Democratic candidates andDemocratic Party leaders to reach out to Catholic voters and to develop the same types of programs and activities that the Republicans used so effectively in the last election.

John McCain sought out and accepted the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee, an evangelical megachurch pastor from Texas who has reportedly called the Catholic Church a “false cult system,” among other things. McCain has renounced the pastor’s anti-Catholic remarks but not his support. Is the Hagee controversy apt to hurt McCain with Catholic voters in the general election?

The Hagee controversy could potentially hurt McCain with Catholic voters in the general election, particularly swing voters who might be genuinely undecided as to whether to vote Republican or Democratic. However, McCain is following a well-worn path among Republican candidates, most recently George W. Bush, of trying to put together a broad coalition of religious conservatives, including evangelical Protestants, conservative mainline Protestants and traditional Catholics. This controversy shows that the different pieces of this religious coalition do not always sit together harmoniously due to religious tensions among them.

It is likely that John McCain sought the endorsement of Hagee to bolster support among conservative evangelicals, but it could cost him support among Catholics. McCain has tried to minimize such damage by enlisting the support of a large number of conservative Catholic leaders, some of them office holders, some of them former office holders, some of them people in the business community or in the anti-abortion community. One of the leaders of that effort, which is called Catholics for McCain, is a former rival of McCain’s for the Republican nomination, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Brownback is an interesting figure in this regard. He was raisedProtestant and had strong connections to the evangelical community, but in recent times he has converted to Catholicism. Thus Brownback has a foot in both of the major religious groups that McCain will want to mobilize for the fall campaign.

The Hagee controversy is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2000, when McCain was running against George W. Bush in the Republican primary, Bush spoke at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., an explicitly fundamentalist college that was quite critical of the Roman Catholic Church. This speech created a firestorm of criticism of Bush, and the Bush campaign had to do a great deal of damage control so that the potential benefits among evangelicals would not be offset by damage done among Catholics. Like McCain this year, Bush sought the help of Catholic leaders.

In the Democratic race, Catholics have been called one of Hillary Clinton’s most reliable constituencies. What explains her success?

She has done very well among white Catholics, particularly in Midwestern and Northeastern states. But she has also done very well among Hispanic Catholics in places like Texas and Nevada. So Catholics have indeed been a very important source of support for Sen. Clinton. Sen. Barack Obama has made a real effort to make inroads into the Catholic vote but not with a lot of success in most states.

There are a couple of different reasons Clinton may have done so well among white Catholics. Some of this could have to do with the fact that the Catholic community knows Sen. Clinton well, knows her husband – former President Clinton – and maybe doesn’t know Sen. Obama as well, with the possible exception of Catholics in Illinois.

Many white Catholics in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania have other characteristics that may lead them to vote for Hillary Clinton: Many are older, from ethnic backgrounds, are working-class people and members of labor unions – all groups that have tended to support Hillary Clinton.

There may be some religious reasons for this support as well. Roman Catholics tend to have a communal focus on politics, particularly when it comes to social welfare issues. Sen. Clinton over the years has talked about social welfare issues in a way that can appeal to those communal values of white Catholics. For example, a few years ago, Hillary Clinton wrote a book called It Takes a Village, in which she talked about how the community should come together for the welfare of children. Many conservatives criticized that book, arguing that it was collectivist, having a village rather than a family take care of children. But to many Catholics, this sounded like just the right degree of communal involvement in the welfare of children.

The Catholic vote in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary is being targeted by both Democratic candidates. For example, Barack Obama’s campaign has said it will launch a Catholic-specific phone banking system. And Vicki Kennedy, the wife of Mass. Sen. Ted Kennedy, is helping to plan pro-Obama roundtable discussions with Catholic women. Is there any evidence that this type of targeted Democratic outreach to Catholics is working?

There is no doubt that when a candidate targets a particular kind of voter, they have a much better chance of getting their support. It’s unclear at this point whether these particular efforts by Sen. Obama are paying off in Pennsylvania. We won’t really know until the election.

One way to look at the primary campaign up to this point is that Obama has, bit by bit, made significant inroads into blocs of Democratic voters that a year ago were strongly behind Clinton. A good example of that is his support in the black community, which was fairly modest a year ago and, of course, is very strong now. He’s made similar inroads among younger voters and among well-educated and affluent Democrats. He has not yet cracked the Catholic vote. It may very well be that Pennsylvania will be a test as to whether he can continue to make inroads into groups that have supported Clinton in the other primaries.

Perhaps more important than Ted Kennedy’s support in Pennsylvania is the endorsement of Sen. Bob Casey, a very prominent Catholic in the Keystone State who, if he campaigns with Obama, may reinforce the Catholic phone bank and the other activities by thecampaign.

The Clinton campaign, of course, will not sit on its hands. Preserving their advantage among Catholic voters in Pennsylvania will likely be very important so they can have the same kind of results they had in Ohio. There is likely to be quite a struggle for the Catholic vote in the Pennsylvania primary.

The Catholic Church in the United States is becoming increasingly Hispanic. The Pew Forum’s recently released U.S. Religious Landscape Survey shows that 29 percent of all Catholic adults are Latino, and nearly half of Catholic adults under age 40 are Latino. Despite being fairly conservative on abortion and gay marriage, Hispanic Catholics describe themselves as significantly more liberal than white Catholics. What impact are these trends likely to have on future elections and the way the political parties try to appeal to Catholic voters?

There is no question that the growing number of Hispanic Catholics is going to have a profound effect on American politics in the future. It’s going to have a profound effect on American society and on the Catholic Church as well. There are three dynamics at work if we think about the politics of the Latino Catholic vote.

The first is the dynamic between immigration and assimilation. Many of the Hispanic Catholics are recent immigrants. And historically, recent immigrants have tended to voteDemocratic.

As immigrant groups establish themselves and assimilate into American culture, theytend to vote more Republican. So in the very short run, the increase in Hispanics due to immigration tends to benefit Democrats. But in the longer run assimilation tends to help Republicans.

A second dynamic is turnout. Many immigrant groups do not turn out in very high rates in elections. This is true of Latino Catholics. Even though they are an increasing proportion of the population, they are not increasing as fast as a proportion of the electorate. Some of them can’t vote because they are not citizens, but others don’t vote because they’re not well integrated into the political process, and candidates don’t know how to reach them. If turnout remains low among Latino Catholics, that will likely reduce the Democratic advantage.

A final dynamic is the political issue of immigration. When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he did fairly well among Latino Catholics because of his support for immigration reform. In the White House, President Bush has pursued very similar views.

But many people in the Republican Party have very different views on immigration and would like to see the borders closed and immigration restricted. Understandably, the Hispanic Catholic community sees the immigration issue very differently. To the extent that immigration remains a prominent issue in politics, this could benefit the Democrats. But if the issue is resolved one way or another, it could give the Republicans a chance to talk about social issues and other concerns that would work to their favor with Hispanics.

Photo Credit: AP

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