Posted on March 13, 2000 in Washington Watch

In the midst of the 1996 presidential election campaign, my mother, then 89 years old, was interviewed by ABC TV’s popular program “Good Morning America” about her support for Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. Pollsters that year had noted that despite the President’s support for abortion, Catholics were supporting his reelection effort.

And so, a reporter and camera crew had come to speak to my mother as a “typical Catholic senior citizen” to ask why, given her opposition to abortion, she was still supporting the President. Her answer was in two parts. First she noted that her opposition to abortion was real and part of her religious beliefs–but she added that her faith was her own and she didn’t need the president to counsel her. The job of the President, she stated, was to “care for people in need”–the elderly, the poor, the homeless and the unemployed. In these areas, she felt Clinton was doing the best job. So despite her disappointment with his stand on abortion, she would vote Democratic in 1996.

This story is important for a number of reasons. First it points to a reality in American politics. Voters never have perfect choices and so they often base their votes on “issue packages” which help them identify candidates that are closer to their interests and values. Second, American politics is group politics. Groups organize around their interests, and politicians and the political parities seek ways to attract these identifiable groups and win their support.

Finally, while the role of religion and religious groups has, for the most part (with only a few notable exceptions), been a sub-text in recent U.S. elections, in 1996 and, it appears ever more so this year, it has become a focal point.

This year, both parties will be making a major play to win the support of, in particular, Catholic voters. The reason is clear–Catholics are a huge group in several key states and their votes are critical to win elections. A study completed in 1996 showed that Catholics have been a key swing voter group in U.S. elections since 1960. That year John Kennedy, a Catholic, became the first (and only) Catholic to win the presidency. The study shows that in the nine elections since 1960, the Catholic vote swung from Democrat to Republican, in each case, providing a margin of victory for the winning candidate.

There are 62 million Catholics in the United States, about 23 percent of the total population. Of them, about 29 million are voters, more than one quarter of the electorate. More importantly, Catholics, who are primarily of ethnic Irish, Italian, Hispanic and Polish heritage, are concentrated in several key states that are central to winning national elections.

U.S. presidential elections are not won by the national popular vote, but by winning what is called the electoral voters from each state. Each of the 50 states are apportioned a number of electoral votes equal to the number of members of Congress they have (which is determined by the population of each state–at present each member of Congress represents 540,000 people) and their two senators. The presidential election is in fact 50 elections–one in each state. To win, a candidate must win enough states to capture more than one-half of the 535 electoral votes (435 Congress members plus 100 senators), that is 273 electoral votes. Catholics are the dominant group in 10 Midwestern and eastern states and a very significant group in California, Texas and Florida–combined, these 13 states have almost 280 electoral votes. Hence the potential importance of the Catholic vote.

Already this year, the issue of the Catholic vote has been raised in two separate incidents. First was Republican Senator John McCain’s effort to exploit Catholic sentiments by charging that anti-Catholic Protestants from the religious right wing supported Governor George W. Bush. McCain pointed out that Bush addressed a major event at Bob Jones University whose founder has called Catholicism a “racist cult” and has termed Catholicism (and Islam) “a religious deception.” In tens of thousands of phone calls made to Catholic voters, the McCain campaign charged that “anti-Catholic bigots” supported Bush.

McCain, in fact, won the majority of Catholic voters in several states, but his blatant appeal worried some Catholics and created a backlash among some Protestant voters. Bush, whose brother Jeb (the Governor of Florida) is Catholic, was quick to repudiate the charge. In a letter to Catholic bishops Bush explained his own positions on religion, making clear he was not against Catholicism. In the end many feel Bush was able to deflect the issue.

Nevertheless, the role of the religious right and its attitudes toward Catholics will most probably continue to be an issue used by some in the November elections.

Another incident to which Democrats are pointing as evidence of Republican insensitivity to Catholic concerns came in the selection by the congressional Republican leadership of a Protestant to be the new Chaplain of the House of Representatives.

Democrats charge that a Catholic Priest was passed over for the job despite having received the most votes by the selection committee. They also note that the Catholic candidate was subjected to a few insensitive comments. The U.S. Congress has never had a Catholic chaplain.

Already, in response, Congressmen in both parities have gotten into the act of jockeying for Catholic support. In an effort that some feel was designed to deflect criticism, Republicans passed a measure to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Catholic Cardinal John O’Conner. Republicans also passed a bill to honor Catholic schools.

Democrats countered by proposing a bill to “condemn the discriminatory practices of Bob Jones University” and publicly denounce the decision to reject the Catholic Chaplain as an “insult to the Catholic Church.”

In past elections, the appeals politicians have made to the various religious groups have been subtler, based on issues and values. This may be the first election since the Kennedy election in 1960 where the appeals are direct. In 1960 many Protestant leaders warned that if a Catholic were elected he would not be loyal to America. Catholics responded by giving Kennedy 80 percent of their votes. This year, both parties have established outreach programs and opened offices directed at reaching out to Catholic voters–and even at this early stage in the election, they are sparing no effort in this quest.

Republicans will most probably target the issue of abortion and the question of school choice (since many Catholics send their children to private Catholic schools). In 1996 Democrats drew up a list of 20 issues they said were supported by the Catholic Church. Of these, they said, with the exception of abortion, the death penalty and welfare reform, their views were in line with Catholic views. At the end of the day however, capturing Catholic voters is not a simple task. There is no single issue that attracts the group nor is there a block of Catholic voters as such. There are however, Catholic sensitivities and concerns and as we have seen in past elections they do swing from party to party.

It remains to be seen who will win the religious war this year. What is interesting, however, is that this war has emerged as a matter of public debate in the first place.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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