Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why Catholic Voters Matter in 2006 and Beyond --
[Cross-posted to Daily Kos, MyDD, and Street Prophets]

From a recent ABC poll (WARNING: PDF which I have had some problem opening in my browser, but can "save as" and open as a separate file):

More of a swing group is white Catholics. Their preference for Democrats has shifted from an 18-point margin in August to a mere two-point margin in September and back to a 22-point margin now. Where they end up is essential; along with independents, white Catholics historically have been a decisive group in election outcomes.

I've long been an advocate of the idea that Catholics are an important swing constituency whose erosion as part of the Democratic base is part of the party's problems. I'm sure Howard Dean agrees with me. After all, he did say, "The Democratic Party was built on four pillars-the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions and African Americans." Like me, he must be aware of how much this change has hurt the party.

The Catholic vote is important for several reasons.

1) Catholics are a natural fit for a left-of-center coalition. The Republican Party is a coalition of groups such as neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, libertarians, and Christian conservatives who come together primarily over conservative economic issues and, to a lesser extent, a forceful national security pose and a belief in American exceptionalism. Arrayed against them is a Democratic coalition which comes together primarily on progressive economic issues (the New Deal) and, to a less extent, on a more positive orientation toward peace. The Catholic worldview is very open to the idea of redistributive economic justice and is much in keeping with the core issues of the Democratic Party.

2) Catholics vote at a higher rate than the rest of the population (WARNING: PDF) . Appealing to Catholics is simply more efficient because you get more votes for the same effort expended toward other segments of society.

With a major party Catholic candidate on the ballot for the first time since 1960, voter turnout among Catholics in the 2004 presidential election was 63% – substantially higher than the 57% of Catholics that turned out to vote in the 2000 election. Turnout was higher than usual among the whole electorate as well in 2004 with an estimated 53% of the U.S. Voting Age Population (VAP) casting a ballot. In 2000, 50% of the overall U.S. VAP turned out to vote.

Catholics maintained the historical trends of having higher levels of participation than the overall electorate and having voted similarly to the overall popular vote in terms of candidate choice. Media-sponsored exit polls indicate that 52% of Catholics voted for President George W. Bush (approximately 16.6 million Catholic votes) and 47% voted for Senator John F. Kerry (approximately 15.0 million Catholic votes).

3) Catholics are a significant portion of the electorate who happen to be well-represented in certain swing states such as much of the Midwest. Not only are they a large group, but they are well-positioned to tip the balance in competitive presidential elections.

Over at TPMCafe, Tom Schaller wrote about his new book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. While I disagree with him if he says that we should completely ignore the south, I do agree with him when he says:

Instead, to fill their partisan baskets as quickly and efficiently as possible the Democrats’ best strategy is to begin with the windfallen fruits in the Northeast, where the party is strongest but have yet to consolidate and maximize its majorities, particularly in Congress.

The low-hanging fruits of the Midwest, consistently the most competitive region in American politics for 60 years, are next. Midway up the tree are the southwestern and interior western seats and electors ready for plucking. Finally, at the top of the tree—where the tipped ladder is least stable and farthest from the ground—hang the once plentiful but now soured fruits of the South, particularly those of the Deep South at the treetops.

Not surprisingly, the Northeast and the Midwest are the places with strong concentrations of Catholics. If you agree with Schaller's contention that these are the easiest places to make gains, the Catholic vote is crucial to this effort, I really don't see how those gains can be made without shifts in the Catholic vote.

4) Catholics have traditionally been the leading edge of shifts in public opinion. If there is going to be a swing, Catholics swing first. That's why the winner of the majority of the Catholic vote tends to be the winner of the majority vote period. The movement of Catholics was the key shift in public opinion on the Vietnam War. It wouldn't be surprising to see Catholics turn out to be the key shift in the turning tide against the Iraq war and Bush's mishandling of national security.

Some express distaste for Catholics as part of a working Democratic coalition because they applies the same sort of symbolic value to abortion and gay marriage as is done by conservative evangelical Christians or because they assign too much credit to a few grandstanding clerics who like making public pronouncements. Well, I have news for you. African-American Protestants are more socially conservative than Catholics, yet are embraced. Catholics used to vote solidly Democratic (not as solidly as blacks, but still worth caring about), yet have not been embraced so readily, and so that part of the party has slipped away. Been thrown away, even, some would argue.

We stand upon the cusp of an opportunity to restore Catholics from a swing constituency to one that at least leans Democratic. And the way to do that is to frame the party's core issues--health care, the poor, labor, education, Social Security, etc.--using moral language. Not all the time, and not by every candidate, but often enough that Catholic voters get the message.
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