Hillary Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana gave her campaign a second wind, and largely thanks to Catholic voters. In Ohio, where Catholics made up a third of the electorate, Clinton won them 63-percent to 36-percent over Barack Obama. In Pennsylvania, where one in three voters was again Catholic, Clinton won them 70-percent to 30-percent. As Clinton’s State Faith & Values Outreach Director, Eric McFadden has been the campaign’s lead Catholic outreach organizer for the last few months. God-o-Meter caught up with him last week, shortly after McFadden left the campaign.
When did you join the Clinton campaign?
I worked for them starting in the Ohio primary until now, basically on a state-by state basis.
Why’d you leave?
I think we all know why–it’s in the news.
What did “Catholic organizing” look like on a day-to-day basis for you?
A lot of it was going into the states and setting the table for outreach, in Ohio and Pennsylvania especially. A lot of phone calls to Catholic clergy and lay people and ethnic organizations. We set up listening sessions around the state where myself or other surrogates were talking about Hillary Clinton. It kind of took on a life of its own, with people organizing postcard programs to express support as Catholics for Hillary to fellow parishioners.
We had a huge amount of interest from women’s religious communities. At times it was overwhelming. Some of our surrogates would go to convents and I had not seen that many nuns get together since I was organizing for [the progressive Catholic group] Catholics in Alliance [for the Common Good].
How many nuns were there as part of the Clinton effort in Pennsylvania?
Across the state I would say 400 to 500… We organized them locally and they did some canvassing in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. Because the women’s religious population is aging, a lot of them did phone banking from their homes. They would do scripts we had developed specifically for them and call into Catholic areas.
Weren’t some of the sisters scared of the reaction of the Catholic church, particularly because Clinton is pro-choice?
We didn’t ask them to call as sisters or to call as Catholics—it was their choice. Some of them identified themselves as sisters, but some of them expressed concern about being affiliated with a [tax-exempt] 501c3 or church [which can’t endorse candidates] so we just treated them as any other volunteers working for the campaign. It was their choice.
Did you have lists of Catholic voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana? How’d you identify these people?
It was hard for us, but there are heavily Catholic areas. We had research down to the precinct level where there would be heavy numbers of Catholics and I would identify those areas and other Catholics would call into that area.
Would you run into Obama’s religious outreach effort at all?
I really didn’t bump into their work a whole lot. This is just speculation, but theirs appeared to be more built around liberal Catholic organizations, going from the grass tops down. Our approach was grassroots up.
I’d read that for your Catholic organizing work on John Kerry’s behalf in 2004, you had to strong arm his campaign into working with you?
It was October 2004, and we wanted to do a rally of Catholics for Kerry in Columbus, Ohio. I secured a union hall and had four local priests and a bunch of nuns and local officials and I said to the Kerry campaign, can you get me resources? They blew me off. I had a producer from Nightline call me up and say they wanted to do a story on me. Once the Kerry campaign found out Nightline was coming, they brought in resources and Senator Dick Durbin. But it took a big show to make it happen.
The work on behalf of John Kerry was kind of like—I had to go outside the boundaries of the campaign to get its attention. Many times I was ignored. This time on the Clinton campaign, they came to me. And I had buy-in from the state directors on down. Everybody believed in it. There was no pushback from anybody. Everybody truly believed in the importance of this kind of outreach.
According to the exit polls, Obama did markedly better among Catholics in Indiana and West Virginia than he had in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Is he narrowing Clinton’s Catholic advantage?
I think it’s demographics. If you look at the concentration in Indiana, Catholics tend to be more in northern Indiana, like South Bend, where there are younger, liberal-type Catholics and less your blue collar working class type Catholics, though I hate to use that term. I’m a West Virginia native. The Catholic community there is not as strong as Pennsylvania and Ohio. You don’t have the women’s religious communities. You have one diocese. Probably around five percent or less of the state is Catholic. I was surprised they even did exit polling for Catholics there.
Will you actively support Obama if he’s the nominee?
Why is he struggling to win Catholics?
I do think that Reverend Wright hurt him. I heard it from people in Pennsylvania and Ohio and North Carolina. But I do think it’s something he can overcome. He’s taken great steps to do that. But he has his work cut out for him.
What else explains Clinton’s Catholic advantage?
I think it was things like the message on health care. There is not a vast difference between the two. Hillary’s coverage is universal where Obama doesn’t require everyone to have it. I think it’s subconscious. I don’t think Catholics were coming out and saying that Catholic social teaching says this, but it’s in their nature and her plan resonated more…. Catholics feel a moral responsibility to help those in need.
What kind of messaging on Clinton’s part helped her reach Catholics?
The language of the Common Good was one example. The [language of] The Golden Rule was another. And personal responsibility—polling has showed that that’s so important to Catholics.
Hillary conveyed the message of a government that serves the common good. The message on abortion was to protect life at all stages. While Clinton is clearly pro-choice, she talked in the language of rare, safe, and legal. She did not make the mistake that John Kerry made in saying he’s personally opposed to abortion but supports it in his public life. That didn’t work.
It’s been said that Obama talks more like an evangelical, which may resonate less with Catholic voters.
His faith background is obviously different than hers. She comes from a Methodist background and he comes from a UCC background that is more urban. They’re both authentic in where they’re coming from. I’ve heard Senator Obama talk at times and I can almost see the spirit moving in him. But my background is different and I’m married to a Methodist, and if people are used to a certain way they might feel differently when the see Obama [discuss his faith]. It may seem foreign to them.
The conservative Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights beat up on Obama’s National Catholic Advisory Council for being insufficiently Catholic. I noticed the Clinton campaign didn’t release that kind of list. Why not?
We were trying to fit more in the structure of the campaign. Those people on [Obama’s Catholic advisory] list, they’re all great people but when you form a list like that you create a target for someone like [Catholic League president] Bill Donohue, who has an axe to grind with it and it can divert attention away from what you’re trying to accomplish.
What do you think of the Christian literature that Obama’s handing out in Kentucky and elsewhere?
For me as a Catholic it’s a bit in your face, a bit too much. My preference would be to tone in it down. You have to be authentic about it and he needs to talk about it, but people who think he’s a Muslim are foolish. If people choose to believe that, it’s their own fault.
There’s a lot of scholars who say the Catholic voting bloc is a myth—Catholics are a swing vote because they vote independently and not because of their religious identity. So why reach out to them as a group?
Catholics are like any other group—they like to identify themselves. It’s like being Irish or from New York City. When you say I’m Catholic it’s like being part of a club, especially for cradle Catholics. So you want to spend time reaching out to them as such. To go further than that, Catholics will always stand around the issue of charity, helping others. That’s the root of Catholicism.