Politics & Policy

Seeing Catholics

Dems try to reach out.

White Catholic voters: Heads up! The “Ragin’ Cajun” is looking for you. James Carville, along with Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and political operative Bob Shrum, recently released a memo on “Reclaiming the White Catholic Vote” under the auspices of their nonprofit Democracy Corps. The actual authors are Greenberg and Matt Hogan, who discuss a nationwide survey of 1,033 white Catholic voters conducted February 22-28, 2005, with a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

The memo is an interesting document as much for deciphering a liberal Democratic mindset on the subject of social conservatism as for the polling data it contains. It does make some useful distinctions that illustrates the now prevalent view that many of the differences between modernist and traditionalist co-religionists cuts across many denominations. On the other hand, the memo counsels essentially rhetorical responses to the alienation of these traditionalists without offering much in terms of substantive policy changes in the Democratic party.

To their credit, Greenberg and Hogan do not sugarcoat the situation. Bill Clinton carried the white Catholic vote by 7 points. Al Gore lost it by 7 points. And John Kerry, the first Catholic running for the presidency since Kennedy, managed to lose it by a whopping 13 points, a 20-point swing over three elections. Ralph Reed once said Catholics were the “jump ball” of American politics. It seems the GOP has now grabbed it. The question the authors seek to answer is: Can Democrats reclaim the white Catholic vote, build up their base in the east, and move ahead in the midwest battleground?

Greenberg, who first coined the term “Reagan Democrats” in the context of Macomb County, Michigan, maintains that these white Catholic voters “have not gone Republican.”

Rather, they are divided on a variety of policy questions as well as their basic worldviews. “They are split 50-50 on whether the country is headed in the right or wrong direction, on their vote for Congress, on whether abortion should be legal or not and on whether the Catholic Church should be more modern or traditional. They are divided evenly between those who attend church every week and those who are less observant. And finally, they are evenly divided between those with a college degree and those without–closely related to distinct world views that leave white Catholics so evenly divided,” maintain Greenberg and Hogan.

These Catholic voters are Democratic to a greater extent than other white voters. Still, they provided President Bush with a 13 percent margin over Kerry, 10 points higher than the Republican advantage in partisanship. Greenberg and Hogan view this gap as the opportunity or “target audience” for the Democrats. This subset of Catholic white voters they deem “Democratic defectors.” They also identify “post-Clinton defectors” as those who voted for President Clinton in 1996 but not for the luckless Kerry.

Clearly, half of the Catholics–the less observant, theological modernizers, and some communitarians–are still competitive targets for the Democrats; but the memo’s authors recognize that “half is not good enough, which means reaching across the cultural divide.” According to Greenberg and Hogan, two thirds of the “defectors” still vote Democratic for Congress and half agree with Democrats on values and issues.

How to span the divide? Greenberg and Hogan recommend the following steps to reach for the defector class of white Catholic voters: reach across to traditional Catholics on issues such as the war and foreign policy (41 percent say Iraq was not worth it; 41 percent say we should be tolerant about homosexuality in society); highlight the Democrats as the middle-class party; emphasize personal responsibility; and focus on a broad initiative to reduce unwanted pregnancies (abstinence, contraception, adoption).

The authors are slicing the white Catholic vote pretty thin. They make up one in five votes, but only 20 percent of them “are at the center of the battle, though Democrats have every reason to believe they can reclaim lost ground.” Since Catholics in the east lean Democratic, and Catholics in the south are strongly Republican, the Catholics of the midwest–31 percent of whom are German-Dutch–are still a target because the Republicans have only a 4-point party lead with them. This seems optimistic at best. Bush won this group by 11 points. And white Catholic midwesterners are solidly traditionalist on cultural issues.

The most insightful part of the Democracy Corps memo was its emphasis on the deep fault lines, among Catholics, on the overall direction of the Church. The authors note that “The debate is over whether the Catholic Church needs to become more modernized and adapt to an evolving society or whether the Church needs to return to its roots and become more tied to traditional Church teachings. White Catholics come down evenly on each side with 46 percent favoring a more modernized approach and 47 percent preferring a return to more traditional practices.” The struggle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy spills over from the religious to the political and cultural realms. The divide can be traced directly to widely differing views on abortion and gay marriage. Greenberg and Hogan gamely assert that roughly a third of the traditionalists “align” with the Democrats, presumably, because of party affiliation and significant pluralities sharing discontent over the war in Iraq and current foreign policies, interest in social justice, and responsiveness to “middle-class advocacy,” which means, for instance, populist resentment over big corporate salaries.

Greenberg and Hogan put a lot of stock in polling data that shows a 63-point gain for a pro-choice Democrat among defectors and a 28-point gain among traditionalist Catholics when told that the Democrat “believes in a woman’s right to choose but believes all sides should come together around common goal of preventing and reducing [the number] of abortions, with more sex ed, including abstinence, access to contraception and more adoption.” Here the authors are engaging in self-fulfilling prophecy, hoping to finesse such inconvenient issues as partial-birth abortion, government funding of abortion, and liberal hostility to restrictions such as parental notification. Clearly, they are making an effort to define the issue in terms favorable to prospective Democratic candidates who do not want to change their views. They are suggesting a narrative for the 2008 presidential campaign.

In politics, intensity counts for a lot. So it is hard to imagine that the thin gruel offered by the Democracy Corps memo would galvanize movement activists in the right-to-life or pro-family organizations to break a sweat for ersatz traditionalists running on the Democratic ticket. Nor will it cause these activists to decline the opportunity to defeat, say, a supporter of partial-birth abortion. This political reality undercuts the advice offered by Greenberg and Hogan. A liberal Democrat can do very little to blunt a traditionalist challenge without making a serious rightward shift on social issues.

You cannot blame Carville et al. for trying to make the best of a bad situation. Yet it should be noted that Democrats in such blue states as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island appear to be taking a different tack. Again, rather than resorting to mere rhetorical flourishes, they are sucking it up and opening the way for actual pro-life Democrats to run for the U.S. Senate. This kind of substantive change on social issues, should it become common in the modern Democratic party, would be good for the country. However, observing Senator Clinton in her current attempt at repositioning on abortion, it will probably have to get worse before it gets any better.

G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at U.S. E.P.A. in President Bush’s first term.

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