WASHINGTON--When a Democratic strategist pointed out that George
W. Bush's presidential campaign bills itself as having the only platform
that is "explicitly drawn from Catholic social justice teaching," a
collective groan rose from an audience of Catholic social activists
gathered here this week.
This is a governor, after all, who has presided over more than 100
executions since taking office in 1995. Yet again, it seemed, a
non-Catholic was billing himself as a Catholic voter's dream candidate
while the actual Catholics rolled their eyes and let out a long,
After the controversy surrounding Bush's visit to Bob Jones
University, and the simmering anger over House Republicans denying the
chaplain's post to a Catholic priest, Catholics have become the
most-sought-after commodity in presidential politics.
Not since John F. Kennedy's 1960 race for the White House has the
Catholic identity taken such center stage in a presidential race. But
with 43 million Catholic votes up for grabs and Catholics making up at
least a third of all voters in the big primary states, it's not hard to
see why candidates court them so heavily.
They are, as one Catholic magazine labeled them, "the Holy Grail of
But despite their large size and the disproportionate attention they
have received in recent weeks, political and church observers say unless
Catholics find a common rallying cry, they will be "taken for granted"
and their votes again divided between opposing agendas.
"It's the largest voting bloc in America and it's divided, it's
fragmented, it's all over the place," said Ray Flynn, the conservative
former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who now heads the
Catholic Alliance, a grassroots Catholic voter movement. "As long as it
remains that way, one party will ignore it and the other party will take
it for granted."
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Catholics
make up 29 percent of California Republican voters and a whopping 52
percent of New York Republican voters. Those two states could decide the
Republican nomination on Super Tuesday (March 7).
In the general elections, Catholic voters have sided with the
winning candidate in every election since 1972, giving Bill Clinton 54
percent of their votes in 1996, compared to only 37 percent for Bob
"It is 'the' swing vote, and it's the swing vote in the states that
will decide this presidential election," said Vin Weber, a former
Minnesota congressman and now a strategist for John McCain's
But despite appearances of being monolithic, Catholic voters are as
diverse as they are numerous. Northern Catholics tend to be heavily
Democratic, while Southern Catholics tend to vote Republican. Then there
are Catholic sub-groups, such as Florida Cubans, who largely vote
Republican, and Puerto Ricans, which usually vote Democratic.
Further complicating the voting patterns is the fact that neither of
the two parties completely embodies Catholic social teachings. Democrats
offer a home to Catholics on issues like the opposition to the death
penalty and aid to the poor, while Republicans court Catholics on issues
like opposition to legal abortion and support for school vouchers.
"Sometimes," the nation's Catholic bishops lamented in a statement last
year, "it seems few candidates and no party fully reflect our values."
That's why the critical mass of independent Catholics hold such
attraction to those seeking the White House for either party. A full
third of all Catholics -- 36 percent -- are independents, according to a
massive study of Catholic voters by the independent,
conservative-oriented Crisis magazine.
Recent polls suggest just how important Catholic voters could be to
the Bush, McCain and Gore campaigns. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll
showed Bush and McCain both taking equal shares of Catholic primary
voters, about 46 percent each. And in the general election, a poll by
the California-based Barna Research Group found Bush drawing 43 percent
of Catholic voters, compared to 42 percent for Al Gore.
"It's all up in the air," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman
for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's hard to tell
where it will go."
The focus on the Catholic vote began a month ago when Bush kicked
off his South Carolina campaign at Bob Jones University, a
fundamentalist school that has called the pope an agent of the
anti-Christ and bans interracial dating. When Bush stayed silent on the
school's views, McCain jumped on the issue and called Michigan Catholic
voters before that state's primary, telling voters Bush's visit was a
tacit endorsement of the school's theology.
After three weeks of critical press, Bush later apologized to New
York's Cardinal John O'Connor for not speaking out, calling it a "missed
opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret."
While it's unclear how long Bob Jones will continue to haunt Bush's
campaign, political observers say if Republicans want to rely on
Catholics in November, they need to be wary of appearing anti-Catholic.
"Republicans have certainly shown a high degree of tolerance for
anti-Catholic bias," said Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser and
political strategist, who spoke to the gathering of Catholic social
activists. "They seem awfully comfortable in the presence of bigots, and
I find that troubling."
Key to a Republican victory in November will be keeping those
critical Catholic swing votes in the GOP camp. Some, however, say
Catholics will be vying with evangelical Protestants for the party's
attention this year, highlighting a longstanding mutual suspicion of the
two large, important voting blocks.
Weber said his party needs to woo Catholics just as heavily as they
have wooed evangelicals, which provide the core of Republican support.
Republicans, he said, need to once again court those Reagan Democrats
who fueled the GOP majority of the 1980s.
"We have not done that very well in the past, and we have to do that
better this time," Weber said.
So how can Catholics be sure they are not taken for granted, and
that their concerns are heard? Without a central political voice, it
seems that may be up to the Catholic voters themselves.
Flynn, who is desperately trying to mold U.S. Catholics into a
cohesive voting bloc, said he has trouble raising money from voters who
are "good Republicans or good Democrats" rather than "good Catholics."
With no "Irish Catholics Need Not Apply" signs keeping Catholics out
of the mainstream, Flynn said Catholics have become too comfortable in
middle America and have failed to develop a political voice for
themselves, independent of the church.
"When you're not hungry, you're not going to get out there and
fight," Flynn said. "The Catholic vote is pretty satisfied. They've lost
their drive for what's important and their values and beliefs. They've
already made it."
Regardless of whether Catholics vote with their pocket books or
their prayer books, there is a growing sense Catholics want the
attention given to black voters, or Jewish voters or any other
"Very often people think they've got us, they think they know us,
but they don't," Begala said. "There are those of us Catholics who want
to know if we're going to get lip service or social service."