Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

How Obama Can Solve His Catholic Problem

posted by swaldman

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Online:
Debates will rage for days about whether Hillary Clinton won by enough in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary to truly threaten Barack Obama’s candidacy, but one thing is clear already: Sen. Obama continues to struggle among Catholics.
Sen. Clinton trounced Sen. Obama 69% to 31% among Catholic voters, according to exit polls. Ominously, this pattern appears in polls pitting Sen. Obama against Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. Last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had Sen. Obama beating Sen. McCain 47% to 44% but losing among Catholics 48% to 44%.
Remember, President Bush’s victory in 2004 had as much to do with his winning the Catholic vote as the much-discussed evangelical Christian vote. Mr. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry among Catholics 52% to 46%, even though Al Gore had beaten Bush 50% to 46% in 2000. If the Catholic Mr. Kerry had merely done as well among Catholics as the Baptist Mr. Gore, he probably would have won the presidency.
The problem with understanding the Catholic vote is the role of, well, Catholicism. Since the Catholic Church is antiabortion, many assume that abortion must be a key factor in winning Catholic voters. But most Catholics support some abortion rights and regularly vote for pro-choice candidates. The Catholic Church opposed the Iraq war and yet in 2004 Catholics voted for Bush and supported the war.
In fact, it may be that when the more-sophisticated number-crunching has been completed, we’ll find out that Sen. Obama’s problems with Catholics may turn out to have been just a problem with white, working-class seniors, who in Pennsylvania happened to be Catholic.
With that broad caveat, there are a few key things to understand about the Catholic vote going forward:
There are two Catholic votes, not one. Hispanics now represent one-third of Catholics — and 44% of Catholics under age 39, according to the Pew Religion Forum. In the last election, Hispanic Catholics stuck with the Democrats (Mr. Bush did better among Hispanic by winning protestant evangelical Hispanics). This means that in addition to doing better among white Catholics than Mr. Kerry did, the Democrats have the chance to win back the overall Catholic vote by improving on their pull with Hispanics.
In that sense, one of the biggest issues in the battle for Catholics is immigration reform. Given the perception of Republicans as anti-immigrant, almost any Democrat would have an edge over every Republican on this issue. Every Republican, that is, other than Sen. McCain. One question will be whether Sen. McCain’s support of immigration reform will counteract the image of the Republican Party as a whole.
The Democrats so far have squandered an opportunity on abortion. Just as Democrats for years mistakenly wrote off evangelicals as ungettable, they also sometimes write off antiabortion Catholics as ungettable given the party’s commitment to abortion rights. But Catholics’ views on abortion are nuanced. They have serious moral concerns about abortion, but the majority believes abortion should be legal. In a Beliefnet survey, two-thirds of Catholics said the best way to reduce abortion was by “changing the culture through education and other means” compared with 29% who said abortion should be illegal.
That means a Democratic candidate could make real headway among antiabortion voters by having a passionate and convincing abortion-reduction agenda, even if it envisions legalized abortion. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and others have a set of proposals that would reduce abortions (through education, contraception, adoption assistance) without making them illegal. Both Sens. Obama and Clinton rhetorically have supported the idea that abortions should be reduced, but amazingly, neither of them has heartily embraced this agenda. In fact, as of this week, neither Sen. Obama’s nor Sen. Clinton’s Web site mentions their stated desire to reduce the number of abortions. Given the importance of the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, this struck me as a remarkable lost opportunity for either one of them.
Cultural conservatism comes in many flavors. American Catholics have traditionally combined an economic liberalism with social conservatism. This seems to be even truer for Hispanic Catholics. We tend to think that means just abortion and gay rights. But remember that former President Bill Clinton appealed to them in 1992 with a different set of culturally conservative issues: welfare reform, anticrime legislation, and national service. When Mr. Clinton talked about national service, he didn’t just offer idealism, he offered toughness – i.e. people ought to give something back in exchange for their college loans. In the 1996 election, he came up with school uniforms and V-chips to help parents control bad TV. By contrast, neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Kerry combined their traditional liberalism with high-profile culturally conservative issues.
Note that Sen. McCain does have some vulnerabilities among Catholics, including his support of Rev. John Hagee, who has made anti-Catholic comments over the years. Still, Sen. McCain’s war heroism gives him an inherent appeal among culturally conservative voters. Democrats will need to come up with this year’s version of welfare reform.
So far, neither Sen. Obama nor Sen. Clinton has done it. The general election may turn in part on whether they do.

Comments read comments(12)
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Charles Cosimano

posted April 23, 2008 at 11:28 am

There is, of course, an alternative–anti-Catholicism. Obama can run a serious anti-Catholic Church campaign, promising to use rendition to get Cardinal Law out of the Vatican and into a Federal prison, for example, promising to smash anyone who tries to stop stem-cell research. Find those things about Catholicism that gets the vast, non-Catholic majority raging mad at the Catholic church and then bury the Catholic vote under a landslide.
Of course he won’t do it that way. He’ll just look for chinks in McCain’s armor like any other old politician.

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Joe Wright

posted April 23, 2008 at 11:53 am

I did a first cut at the number crunching for Pennsylvania (albeit using county data, not individual exit-poll data). It appears that Obama did not have a significant “problem” with the Catholic vote. Rather, it was indeed a “problem” with white and older voters. More highly educated appears to boost the Obama vote. This story is no different than what occurred in other primary states.
The short story here is that Catholics are not a monolithic vote, and that after controlling for other factors, being Catholic has little affect on the vote (in the Democratic primary). As for the Pennsylvania primary, Catholics in Pennsylvania tend to be older and more white than the rest of the nation. So no surprise that when you control for these factors, being Catholic doesn’t matter much. Next, time the tag line shouldn’t be “Catholic problem.” Pick on whites or the elderly.
Using a simple regression analysis on 67 counties, the standardized coefficients are the following:
Catholic -.12
White -.52**
Over 65 -.25**
Bachelors degree +.36**
Median income +.05
Population -.15
Only White, Over 65 and Bachelors degree are large (in absolute number) and statistically significant.

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posted April 23, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Will whites really vote for a black man? The media,and right wing bias has been nasty lately. These religous posts has been unfair. No other candidate has to wade through such hatred and demonization as Obama. Is America ready for a black President? Pennsylvania is predorminate white.Only God knows whether America is ready.

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Doug, a Black Catholic

posted April 23, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Here Here, Jay!
The slanted way people threat Obama—even here, is infuriating.

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posted April 23, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Will Blacks really vote for anyone except a Black man? That should be the racist question being asked today. Why is it, that the insane amount of Blacks voting for Obama, simply because he is Black, does NOT get the racism tag? It is pure racism through and through. The white vote goes 50/50 for the Obama and Clinton . . . and guess what, the whites that do not vote for the extremist, leftist, liberal, Obama, get labeled as bigots. What ever happened to fairness? Why can’t rejecting an extremist leftist just be a good move?

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posted April 25, 2008 at 8:12 am

97% of Blacks are voting for Obama ONLY because of his Blackness. The Clintons have always been for the Black Community. Mrs. Clinton is not Black. It is pure racism we are seeing, and it is not coming from non-Blacks.

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posted April 25, 2008 at 12:50 pm

There are many blacks voting for Hillary “untruthful” Clinton than you realizes. Blacks has been voting for whites Presidents ever since the voting act was passed,and there is still a lot of work to do to improve human rights in America. As christians we must look through the eys of Christ,rather than political parties. Christian has long voted Republican because of it’s evil stigment of anti minority. Republicans in Penn voted for Hillary to negat Obama. This is a party embrace by wicked radio/Tv talking heads who divides America. This party has weaved it’s way into American’s churches. War mongers and hate mongers are not of God, Huxabee is a God-fearing man,but he was rejected for McCain who does not confess Christ. He attends church occasionaly. Are church goers following the world into their cess pool?

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posted April 27, 2008 at 5:33 pm

On two occasions during his trip to the United States last week, the Holy Father uttered this phrase: “God Bless America.”
Each time I heard Pope Benedict XVI say those words, I couldn’t help but draw, in my mind, a comparison with the notorious words uttered by Senator Obama’s spiritual mentor and pastor of twenty years.
That simple difference (“God bless America” vs. “God d— America”) helps to explain the gap between Obama and the Catholic vote. Obama looks at this country one way. Catholic voters see our country a different way.
Is the problem really with Catholic voters? Or is the problem rather with Obama and his vision of our country? Unless the Democrats nominate Clinton or Gore or someone other than Obama, I can’t see any result other than a McCain victory in November.

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posted April 27, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Steven Waldman: “Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and others have a set of proposals that would reduce abortions (through education, contraception, adoption assistance) without making them illegal.”
Trust me, Steve, no pro-life Catholic is going to be fooled by this. Casey, Jr. is widely understood to be nothing more than a “useful tool” employed by the national Democratic party. The only reason they gave Casey, Jr. the chance to run as the party candidate for Senate in 2006 was because the Republican incumbent (Santorum) was a conservative Catholic and an AUTHENTIC pro-life advocate. Casey, Jr. was merely a “wedge candidate.” He got “the job done” for them (knocking-off Santorum) — but now the national Democratic party no longer has any use for him or his so-called pro-life positions. Casey, Jr. will spend the remainder of his Senate career TALKING like a pro-lifer but VOTING with his pro-abortion Dem. colleagues in the Senate. The guy is nothing more than a talking dog.
You seem perplexed that neither Obama nor Clinton have embraced the ideas that Casey has advanced. Duh! The simple reason is that Obama/Clinton will not risk alienating the NARAL/Planned Parenthood pro-abortion extremists who are a key component of the hard core base of the Dem. Party. Unless they degrade themselves and take on the “dirty job” of knocking-off pro-life Catholic incumbent Republican officeholders (e.g. Casey, Jr. vs. Santorum in 2006) …. there is absolutely NO PLACE for authentically pro-life Catholics in the national Democratic Party today.

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posted April 28, 2008 at 7:19 am

It seems clear from Sen. Obama’s support for partial birth abortion that he does not value a foetus as a human life. Any nod towards programs to reduce abortions at this stage of the campaign would be seen as simply vacuous political rhetoric.
In fact while both parties play the pro-abortion and pro-life cards there has been little serious political effort to reduce the US abortion rate.
The ‘abortion’ issue, I suspect is analagous to McDonald’s offering salads, voters feel virtuous about having that option on the political menu but in the end they make their choices for different more selfish reasons.

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posted May 2, 2008 at 10:06 am

You cited a Beliefnet survey?? LOL.

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posted March 16, 2012 at 9:14 pm

What’s funny, is that Al Gore actually did beat Bush, but Bush had better lawyers. However, I have a glimpse into what the world would have been like if Gore had been declared the winner in 2000:

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