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 Washington Notebook

June 2, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 21

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

The traditional "Catholic voter" is nearing extinction, replaced by an American voter who happens to be Catholic.

Catholic remnant could prove key in election; Press association considers the candidates

By Joe Feuerherd

My son had to write a paper. The topic was his heritage, his cultural identity, and everything that goes along with that -- family traditions, religion, values, cuisine.

He and his siblings are the descendents of 17th century French Huguenots, 18th century English Presbyterians, mid-19th century Irish Catholics, and Germans of either Catholic or Lutheran affiliation. (And, quite literally, God only knows who else.)

So, to the question, "Dad, who am I?" I responded: "You are a mutt."

Then I thought for a second and offered another answer. "You're an American."

Which is also true today of what is historically known as "The Catholic Vote" -- those first, second, and third-generation descendents of Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrants who, in the words of Buffalo-Native Tim Russert, were "baptized Catholic but born Democratic."

"Catholic identity" as it applies to the church is an area of considerable sociological and theological study. But when it comes to American politics, the question has been answered. The traditional "Catholic voter" is nearing extinction, replaced by an American voter who happens to be Catholic.

The children and grandchildren of the "Catholic vote" might still be baptized Catholic, but increasingly they are born "undecided," or "independent," or even (the rumble you're hearing is the sound of their grandparents rolling over in their graves) . "Republican." And they come to these affiliations not by the accident of religious affiliation, but for the same reasons -- views of the economy, the role of the U.S. in the world, and cultural sensitivities -- as their non-Catholic neighbors.

Like the rest of the nation's voters, American Catholics gave Al Gore a slim margin over George W. Bush in 2000; they supported Bill Clinton over both Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush; they backed Bush I over Michael Dukakis, and Ronald Reagan over both Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

Contrast that with the overwhelming support first and second generation Catholics gave to Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

As American Catholics became more affluent, increasingly integrated into the professions, more suburban, and (if one uses mass attendance as a measure) less devout -- in short, as they became more American -- their traditional political allegiances faded. Their voting patterns, and the issues that matter to them, are largely indistinguishable from their non-Catholic neighbors. They're as likely, for example, to support pro-choice candidates, even Catholic ones, as mainline Protestants.

Having said that the traditional "Catholic voter" is largely a thing of the past, the irony is that its remnant could prove the deciding factor in Bush vs. Kerry.

Of the 16 key "battleground" states considered vital in this election, some of the most competitive -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota -- are home to a large number of traditional Catholic voters; citizens strongly inclined to vote Democratic but increasingly alienated by the party's culturally liberal platform, of which views on abortion are the leading political indicator.

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At the congressional level, these states are home to 11 House Democrats, representing 6 million people, who have either relatively strong or impeccable pro-life voting records, while supporting liberal economic measures. These members of Congress -- folks like Bart Stupak and Dale Kildee of Michigan; Mike Doyle, Paul Kanjorski, and John Murtha of Pennsylvania; Jim Oberstar of Minnesota; and Marcy Kaptur and (until he decided to run for president and flip-flopped on abortion) Dennis Kucinich of Ohio -- are truly representative of the views of their constituents. These swing voters are accustomed to pulling the lever for culturally conservative Democrats -- a choice they won't have in the upcoming election.

For John Kerry, this means appealing to their economic concerns. His bet is that the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have disappeared in Ohio will mean more than his liberal record on abortion.

The Bush campaign, meanwhile, will portray Kerry as an effete Massachusetts liberal out of touch with the lives and core beliefs of the people of Wilkes Barre, Pa., and Toledo, Ohio. It was a strategy that worked well for his father against another liberal from Massachusetts.

Which brings us to the bishops.

On a macro level, they're increasingly seen as hostile to pro-choice Catholic Kerry, though the number of bishops who have either directly or indirectly challenged him by threatening to deny him (or even his supporters) communion is relatively small. Will that hurt Kerry among the traditional Catholic voters in these key swing states? Or will there be a backlash against the perception that church leaders are taking a partisan position? Or will Catholic voters in the battleground states simply ignore it and vote their pocketbooks and their view of the war?

Finally, some dates and events that could put Catholic issues smack into the middle of the campaign:

o Kerry's vice-presidential pick. If he chooses either New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (who would presumably appeal to Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of the "new" Catholic vote) or Iowa Governor Tom Vilsak, both pro-choice Catholics, all hell could break loose. One pro-choice Catholic on a national ticket is tough enough, two may be cause for hierarchical apoplexy.

o The U.S. bishops, meeting for their quadrennial retreat, and John Kerry will both be in Denver at the same time for a couple of days this month. The potential for media fireworks is there.

o October's Al Smith Dinner in New York. This Catholic Charities fundraiser has traditionally been a venue where the two major party candidates face-off. Will Cardinal Edward Egan, who has been largely silent on the Kerry communion controversy, allow Kerry to attend and make a speech?

The traditional and much-coveted "Catholic vote" is nearly a thing of the past. But 2004 could prove its last hurrah.

*****

The Catholic vote was the subject of discussion May 28 at the Catholic Press Association annual convention.

Catholic University of America professor of politics John White argued (see above) that the historic "Catholic vote" no longer exists. The war and the economy, and not religious affiliation, will be the key factors in the election, said White.

Religious zeal -- as measured by church attendance -- is another question. Voters of any denomination or religion who attend church services on a weekly basis are far more likely to favor Bush than Kerry, says White, author of The Values Divide (2004, Congressional Quarterly Press) and a consultant to Zogby Interantional, a polling firm.

But that core of support for the president might not be enough.

White compares this election with the 1980 contest between incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Carter's Iraq was the Iranian hostage crisis. And while the dismal economy of the late 1970s and early '80s (double digit unemployment and skyrocketing inflation) is not present today, current economic doldrums (high gas prices, low job creation figures) work against Bush.

One significant difference between 1980 and today, says White, is the increased polizarization of the electorate. Today, just seven percent of Democrats say they plan to vote for Bush, while just nine percent of Republicans plan to back Kerry. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, received one-quarter of the Democratic vote in his 1980 landslide.

Another panelist (yours truly) compared the current race to 1988. At a comparable point in that campaign, Dukakis was leading George H.W. Bush in the polls. Dukakis argued that the election was about "competence, not ideology."

But then Bush I operatives successfully labeled Michael Dukakis a "Massachusetts liberal." Remember Willie Horton, the flag, and the American Civil Liberties Union? All became metaphors that demonstrated to a majority of the American electorate that Dukakis was not "one of them." Bush I, of course, won in a landslide.

Is this 1980? Or 1988? A referendum on an incumbent's record or a race that will highlight the contrast on cultural values between the two candidates?

Kerry, it's clear, hopes for the former, Bush for the latter.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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