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.