The Catholic Voter Still Matters

In November 2004, Democratic Party elites were shocked that baptized Catholic John Kerry lost his bid for the presidency because pro-life blue-collar Catholic Democrats in the Midwest battleground states voted overwhelmingly for George Bush.

Reacting to the election results, The New York Times favorite “anti-Catholic” Catholic writer, Garry Wills, wrote on the November 4 op-ed page that “many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Maureen Dowd of The Times accused Republicans of dividing America “along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule.” E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, blamed Kerry’s defeat on “the exploitation of strong religious feelings.” Ronald Dworkin wrote in The New York Review of Books that Bush’s alliance with the religious Right has already “proved a serious threat to America’s commitment to social inclusiveness.”

Some Democrats in the post-election 2004 period, however, lectured the Party’s progressive intelligentsia that it was time for them to attempt at least to appeal to the cultural views of ordinary Americans. To make that case, Democracy Corps – a political tactics group founded by Democratic consultants James Carville, Bob Shrum, and pollster Stanley Greenberg – released polling data that showed 49 percent of white Catholics were less likely to vote for candidates who are denied Communion by their local bishop. The poll also indicated that abortion is not a fading issue: “Although the pro-life position is strongest among seniors, Catholics’ current pro-life position does not appear likely to lessen with time. While middle-age Catholics lean toward keeping abortion legal, voters under thirty are more pro-life; 53 percent believe abortion should be illegal in most cases.” Reading these political tea leaves, New York Senator Hillary Clinton shook the foundations of the liberal establishment when, in early 2005, she called on Democrats to be more tolerant of the beliefs of those who oppose abortion. To capture Catholic votes in 2008, this hard-left ideologue moved to the center and portrayed herself as a gun-toting, beer-swilling, middle American.

This strategy paid off. In the industrial heartland – Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana – Senator Clinton won the Catholic vote by more than two to one.

In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Catholics proved they are still a vital component of the electorate, despite the fact that many who cast their votes for Clinton viewed her as the “lesser of two evils.”

The question on the minds of many Democratic pols today is, will these Catholic voters stick with their party and vote for Barack Obama in the fall?

Former Indiana Congressman and Obama enthusiast Tim Roemer’s claim that the Senator can “relate to Catholics,” may be wishful thinking. Obama’s votes against Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, his radical pro-abortion stands – which includes opposing legislation that prohibited taking minors across state lines to procure an abortion and giving protection to babies who survive an abortion – his “bitter” remarks about small-town voters, and his “respect” for the California gay marriage decision, may not sit well with the 9 percent of the electorate who are practicing Catholics (not to be confused with the nominal Catholics who make up almost one-quarter of the U.S. population).

As for the McCain campaign, it must energize practicing Catholics. The Arizona senators and his team have to make sure these voters know McCain’s pro-life, pro-family record. They have to convince these voters Obama is just another Adlai Stevenson-type elitist who is contemptuous of their working-class values and if elected will empower a class of social planners to undermine further their core beliefs.

Political analysts agree the fall presidential race will be determined by the economically-depressed rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, and Wisconsin, where aging Catholics are disproportionately represented. Their numbers are higher than in other states because their children and grandchildren – many of whom are non-practicing “cafeteria” Catholics – have moved to more economically prosperous regions.

Most of these working class Catholics subscribe to Judeo-Christian principles, live them in their daily lives and expect the same of public officials. Their beliefs mean more than material gain and transcend economic issues.

And in a close election, these Catholic voters, who cast their ballots according to cultural standards espoused by their faith, still matter. It is they who will determine which man will be sworn in as president on January 20, 2009 – just as they have in every election since 1972.


Catholic Vote 1972 – 2004

1972 Nixon 52%
1976 Carter 57%
1980 Reagan 47%*
1984 Reagan 61%
1988 Bush 51%
1992 Clinton 44%*
1996 Clinton 54%
2000 Bush 51%
2004 Bush 52%

*Plurality Victory

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.