Monday, May 12, 2014

The Catholic vote

In the last six presidential elections the candidate who won the Catholic vote has won the popular vote. Al Gore won the popular vote handily but lost the Supreme Court case of Bush v Gore. (Held: counting votes is unconstitutional.)
President Obama carried the Catholic vote 50 percent to 48 percent while he won the overall national vote 51 percent to 47 percent. That's the third straight Presidential election where the Catholic vote has been a near-carbon copy of the overall vote.

Many Catholic voters are Latino, a group that gave Obama 71% of their votes. Republican attitudes towards immigration aren’t going to win over many of these voters. Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the GOP shouldn’t even bother to field a presidential candidate in 2016 unless Congress passes immigration reform this year. Spoiler alert: they are not going to do it.

The Catholic vote historically was solidly Democratic, but Richard Nixon undertook to create a “new majority” and enlisted Pat Buchanan to capture the Catholic vote. Buchanan suggested, among other things, appointing Italian-Americans to visible positions, going so far as to suggest that the so-called “black seat” or “Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court be given to an ethnic Catholic when it became available. (He was for quotas before he was against them.) Today, there are no Protestants on the Court, and the only Black on the court is Catholic. There are three “ethnic Catholics” – Alito, Scalia, and Sotomeyor.

In 1972 President Nixon, upon the suggestion of Buchanan, wrote to Cardinal Cooke expressing his opposition to abortion and supporting the effort to repeal the liberal N.Y. law. (Interestingly, in the 1970s, conservative Christian protests against sexual immorality began to surface, largely as a reaction to the “permissive sixties” and an emerging prominence of sexual liberties arising from Roe v Wade and the gay rights movement. Christians began to “wake up” and make sexuality issues a priority political cause, per Wiki. I’ll discuss how these voters can be recaptured at a later date.)

The Republican efforts to appeal to Catholic voters achieved some success. Today, it is still assumed that for many Catholic voters -- especially white Catholics -- abortion is a key issue, that many of these voters went for Romney, and that they may go to the Republican nominee in 2016.

I am not so sure that the issue of abortion has as much salience for Catholics as it once had. In a poll in October 2013, thirty-nine percent of all respondents — and 42 percent of self-identified Catholics – felt abortion should be illegal in either “all” or “most” cases. Catholics are just not that different from Americans as a whole.

Pope Francis is not going to change church doctrine regarding this issue. But he has suggested that the church’s focus on abortion can be re-examined. Here is how he put it:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

It is clear that he prefers to keep the attention on wealth inequality and concern for the poor. His comments on fairness very nearly amount to an open rebuke of Paul Ryan, an early contender for the Republican nomination. For sake of discussion, let’s call the issue of wealth inequality “fairness.”

This is not the place to discuss the many reasons that “fairness” as an issue can be embraced by a huge majority of voters, though they are not necessarily the most motivated. Suffice it to say, that 2016 has the potential to pit populists against plutocrats and Catholics are the natural constituency of the populists. Of course, this is true of Latino Catholics, but it is also true of white Catholics in general, many of whom are blue collars workers including those who are feeling disempowered by the decline of labor union power.

Can the issues of abortion and fairness be linked? It will take more than the formulation that Bill Clinton used, which has been taken up by Hillary Clinton: “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.”

In point of fact, abortions are down in the United States under President Obama. In 2011, approximately 1.06 million abortions took place in the U.S., down from an estimated 1.21 million abortions in 2008, 1.29 million in 2002, 1.31 million in 2000 and 1.36 million in 1996. The main driver of abortion levels is the economy. Put another way, improving the economic circumstances of the poor is the most effective anti-abortion program available in America.

If this point can be driven home to Catholics, a significant shift in voting patterns can be achieved. “Want to eliminate abortion? Vote Democratic!” “Access to Birth Control means fewer abortions.” “Fairness = fewer abortions.”

One hundred, twenty-seven million voters cast votes in the 2012 election One quarter of the votes (i.e. almost 32 million) were cast by Catholics.

A 51.1 – 47.2 percentage split of the popular vote in favor of Obama produced a margin of victory of 1,053,000 votes, and a decisive victory in the Electoral College. 

If the next Democratic candidate can shift just 2% of the Catholic vote in his or her favor, that’s a 1,280,000 cushion that would virtually guarantee a victory for the Democratic nominee. 

And, if you are listening, Joe Biden, it wouldn’t hurt if the nominee himself was a proud Catholic. And, Joe, if you do decide to run …

“… tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”