|| Catholics have clout in vote-rich
By JOHN K. WHITE and WILLIAM V. D'ANTONIO
Since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, much has been made of the support Republican presidential candidates received from self-described "born-again" evangelical voters. When the GOP nominated Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George Bush in 1988, evangelicals supported them in overwhelming numbers. When the Republicans chose relatively unpopular candidates as they did with Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, evangelicals continued to give these candidates substantial majority support.
There is another religious group that has not received nearly as much news coverage, but has far more clout: Catholics. Catholics constitute important voting blocs in such voter-rich states as New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, New Mexico and California. Several political strategists have attempted to discover the keys to winning Catholic support, since they realize that in so doing their man (and, some day, woman) will be well-positioned to enter the White House.
John F. Kennedy's legendary 1960 campaign for the presidency, for instance, was premised on the idea that Kennedy's fellow believers could be enticed to return to the Democratic fold after their dalliance with Dwight Eisenhower. That strategy paid off, as Kennedy won 78 percent of Catholic votes cast in 1960. Likewise, in 1980 Ronald Reagan won 50 percent of the Catholic vote (compared to Jimmy Carter's 42 percent) by stressing his strong anti-communist beliefs -- positions that appealed to ethnic Catholics who had relatives still entrapped in the captive nations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Reagan's appeal to Catholics was indicative of the popularity the Republican party had among many Catholics as the Cold War progressed. Throughout the long struggle with communism, Republicans accused Democrats of being "soft on communism." The charge, though manifestly unfair, stuck. In the 10 presidential elections held between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven of them. Their victories were premised on pursuing hard-fought arms agreements with the Soviets while assuring voters that they were hardheaded negotiators at the bargaining table.
"Peace through strength" became a Republican mantra, and would-be GOP presidents chanted it over and over again. Democrats protested that they were not naive when it came to dealing with the various general secretaries of the Soviet Communist Party. Indeed, John Kennedy out-hawked Richard Nixon in 1960; Lyndon Johnson's appeal to "reason together" provided a stark contrast to Barry Goldwater's assertion that the Cold War should be won outright -- even if that meant "lobbing one into the men's room of the Kremlin." But more often than not, the Democratic responses were ineffectual. After Michael Dukakis lost to Bush, some Democrats wondered whether their party would ever win the presidency again.
Cold War coalition
Catholics became an important part of the Republican Cold War presidential coalition. Long before Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," Catholics harbored an intense antipathy toward anything that smacked of communism. In 1930, the pope asked Catholic Americans to pray for the conversion of Russia. After Franklin Roosevelt signed the Yalta Agreement in 1945, ceding much of Eastern Europe to the communists, House Republican Alvin O'Konski, who represented an ethnic district deep in the heart of the fabled Chicago Democratic machine, expressed the anger many Catholics felt: "The New Deal betrayed and sold down the river Poland, Yugoslavia, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and other small nations, and the president didn't even blush when he signed their life and liberty away."
By 1949, 77 percent of all Americans saw communism and Christianity as incompatible -- including 81 percent of Catholics. During the 1950s Republicans sought to capitalize on the Democrats' perceived softness toward communism. In 1956 the Republican National Committee established a Republican Nationalities Division that distributed "I Like Ike" buttons in 10 languages along with 500,000 pamphlets titled "The Republican Policy of Liberation." Four years later, during the 1960 presidential race, Republicans tried to neutralize John F. Kennedy's Catholic appeal by stressing their solidarity with the Catholic-dominated nations of Eastern Europe. American Nationalities for Nixon-Lodge printed fliers claiming it was during "the Roosevelt-Truman era when the freedom of millions of people in Europe and Asia was turned over to communist slavery." That same committee distributed 48,000 foreign-language buttons, held freedom rallies in cities with large Polish populations (including Buffalo and Chicago), and printed thousands of post cards depicting the famous Nixon-Khrushchev "kitchen debate." By responding favorably to such overtly nationalistic appeals, Catholics found an important psychological release: In denouncing communism they had proved once and for all that they were truly American.
By 1992 the Cold War was over and with it Republican domination of the presidency. Bill Clinton won because the country had left the Cold War behind and was anxious to solve problems lingering at home. George Bush thought the Cold War's end would win him electoral plaudits: "I hope every mother and dad out there says, 'Hey, we ought to give this president a little credit for the fact that our little kids don't worry so much about nuclear war.' Isn't that important?" It was important, but most voters saw Bush as a Cold War president without the Cold War. The electorate saw Bush as lacking in vision and purpose and so chose Clinton.
It's the economy
Like the rest of the country, most Catholics were doleful about the state of the economy and the collapse of their immigrant forebears' faith in the American Dream. Clinton won 44 percent of Catholic votes cast in 1992 -- allowing him to win key states where Catholics cast a disproportionate share of the vote -- including New York, Illinois and California. The religious right coalition proved to be a limited base of support for the Republicans.
But Clinton's 1992 win did not presage a return by Catholics to their Democratic roots. During his first two years in office, Clinton handed Republicans a splendid opportunity to make political hay by proposing a government-run health care system that proved too complex to understand, signing the Brady bill and advocating a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to gays in the military. Republicans devised a simple slogan for these actions: "God, Guns and Gays." The message resonated with voters, including many Catholics.
Majorities of those who were Catholics, "born-again," married, National Rifle Association supporters, parents of children under age 18, weekly churchgoers and full-time employees sided with the Republicans that year. Catholic support for House Republican candidates represented a historic shift. During the heyday of the New Deal, Catholics supported Democratic presidential and congressional candidates in record numbers. In 1936, the last time a Democratic president won re-election, Democrats won so many seats in Congress that there was not enough room for them to sit on their side of the aisle. Over the years, consistent Catholic support sustained the Democratic congressional majority. Prominent Catholics rose to high positions in Congress, notably Tip O'Neill. But in 1994, Catholics cast 51 percent of their votes for Republican congressional candidates, marking their first significant departure from the Democratic party since Franklin Roosevelt was laid to rest. Even New York governor Mario Cuomo, one of the most prominent Catholic politicians, lost to a Republican challenger in Roosevelt's home state.
Three crucial states
In 1996 Catholics returned to their Democratic roots with 53 percent supporting Bill Clinton (see Table 1). Clinton won sizable Catholic support in states that now form the heart of the post-Cold War Democratic presidential coalition. In New York Clinton won 49 percent of the Catholic vote; in New Jersey, 47 percent; Pennsylvania, 53 percent; Illinois, 54 percent; California, 54 percent. Overall, Catholics constituted one-third of Clinton's total vote. This is important since Clinton's twin victories depended on support from three crucial states where Catholics constitute an important share of the vote: New York (33 electoral votes), California (54 electoral votes) and Illinois (22 electoral votes). These three states are anchors for Democratic victories in the Northeast, Midwest and West. Just as significant, 53 percent of Catholics cast a Democratic ballot in the 435 congressional races, compared to 45 percent who picked a Republican. The actions of the 104th Congress, especially the two shutdowns of the federal government and the attacks on Medicare and Medicaid, earned a sharp rebuke from Catholics: 54 percent disapproved of the Republican-controlled Congress; just 42 percent approved.
But Clinton's Catholic coalition differed markedly from that assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. While economic issues are important to Catholics (as they are to nearly everyone else), the economy is no longer a demarcation line for Catholics. Census data show that, unlike the situation in the 1930s, there is very little difference in income and education levels attained by white Catholics and white Protestants. A historic dividing line has been erased. By the 1990s, Gallup and NORC surveys were reporting that Catholics were as likely as Protestants to have attended and graduated from college and slightly more likely to enjoy above average income. Moreover, these studies also reported that more than 90 percent of Protestants said they would vote for a Catholic president.
Not surprisingly, then, since 1968 Catholics have come to look like the rest of the country when the presidential votes were counted. In 1972, for example, 54 percent of Catholics voted for John Kennedy's 1960 opponent, Quaker Richard Nixon. Similarly, in 1984 and '88 Catholics gave Ronald Reagan and George Bush 54 and 52 percent of their votes respectively.
Back to the fold
But many Catholic Democrats returned to the fold in 1996. This was especially true of Hispanic Catholics, who gave the Clinton-Gore ticket 81 percent of their votes -- nearly equaling the 84 percent support the Democratic ticket received from blacks. Many Hispanics were motivated to cast a Clinton ballot by the Republican party's tough anti-illegal immigrant stance, which they found to be an anathema. In 1994 California voters agreed with the Republicans and passed Proposition 187, which banned all state spending on illegal immigrants and required police to report suspected illegal aliens to the California Department of Justice. The measure proved popular, winning 59 percent support at the polls. But whereas whites gave it 64 percent backing, 69 percent of Hispanics (most of them Catholic) disapproved. Still, the Republican-controlled 104th Congress read the returns, passing a tough anti-immigrant law that doubled the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents to 10,000 and speeded up deportation of immigrants who used false documents. Some Republican representatives proposed even more punitive measures, including preventing the states from providing free public education to children of illegal immigrants, deporting legal immigrants who used more than 12 months of public assistance in a seven-year period and barring both illegal and legal immigrants who were HIV-positive or had AIDS from enrolling in federally financed treatment programs.
Alfredo Alvarez, a legal immigrant from Honduras, became a naturalized citizen because of such GOP-led hostility: "I love this country but I feel unwanted. I feel like unless I am a true American, the government could one day knock on my door and tell me, 'Alfredo, go back to Honduras.' " The result was a Catholic Hispanic backlash: Clinton's support among this strategically placed Catholic population rose 11 percent from his 1992 posting. Even staunchly pro-Republican Cubans cast aside their hatred of communism and Fidel Castro to give Clinton 40 percent of their votes, support that proved crucial in Clinton's capture of Florida.
First-time voter Jesse Henriquez, a 48-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, expressed the sentiments of many Catholic Hispanics: "The only way we can tell the people that we are working hard and that Latinos should not be blamed for all the country's problems is to register and vote. Little by little, we are telling people, 'No more Proposition 187s.' " As the Jesse Henriquezes proved in 1996, Republican backing for Proposition 187 paid a short-term dividend but was a long-term loser.
Changed issue mix
Equally important is the changed issue mix that controls presidential elections during the post-Cold War era. During the Cold War, Republicans won by sitting on a three-legged stool whose supports were the economy, foreign policy and defense. In 1992 that stool collapsed and in 1996 it was replaced by what the Clinton White House called M2E2 -- a shorthand formula standing for Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. Clinton stressed these issues, and as Table 2 indicates they were a powerful inducement to Catholics.
Exit polls conducted by Voters News and Surveys showed the economy and jobs mattered most to Catholics, followed by Medicare/Social Security, education, taxes and the deficit. Only the last two issues worked for Dole -- of those Catholics who said taxes were most important, Dole won 73 percent of their votes; likewise, of those who mentioned the deficit, 54 percent backed Dole. Just 4 percent named foreign policy as an important factor in their voting decision, and of this minuscule number, 48 percent backed Dole and 45 percent supported Clinton.
This new issues mix has transformed the gender gap into a gender canyon. The gender gap, which first became evident in Ronald Reagan's 1980 win, has become an enduring feature of contemporary American politics. Clinton had a 16 point lead among all women in 1996, winning 54 percent of their ballots, while Dole scored better with men, capturing 44 percent of their votes. The gender gap was even greater among Catholics: Dole won 46 percent support from white Catholic men to Clinton's 41 percent. But with extraordinary support from Hispanic and Black Catholic men, Clinton's overall support from Catholic men was 47 percent to 41 percent for Dole.
A similar pattern held for women. Among white Catholic women, Clinton got 54 percent of their votes to Dole's 37 percent -- a gender canyon of 17 points. When the black and Hispanic women's votes were included, Clinton's support among Catholic women jumped to a 25 point margin (59 percent to 34 percent). New Jersey Republican representative Marge Roukema observed that unless Republicans addressed the M2E2 equation they would be "a long time coming back."
The demographic profile also shows that Clinton won a majority of Catholics in all age categories, but was particularly strong with the 18-29 (57 percent to 30 percent for Dole) and the 65 and older (53 percent to 39 percent) age groups. Even more striking was how well Clinton did with first-time Catholic voters, whipping Dole 65 percent to 32 percent. Again, Clinton ran well ahead of Dole among Catholics earning under $50,000 a year and among Catholics with less than a college degree. Among college graduates and postgraduates, Clinton and Dole ran neck and neck.
The Catholic vote also reveals a difference in lifestyles and voting. Working Catholic women were especially supportive of Clinton: Sixty percent backed Clinton while 32 percent supported Dole. But those Catholic women who were not in the paid labor force were less supportive: Fifty percent voted for the president; forty percent backed his Republican challenger. Moreover, there is a "marriage gap" among Catholics. Among those Catholics who were married (64 percent), the race was relatively close: Forty-eight percent voted for Clinton; forty-two percent were for Dole. But among Catholic singles (36 percent) it was no contest: Fifty-nine percent backed Clinton; thirty percent voted for Dole. Not surprisingly, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a lightning rod among Catholic voters: Just 50 percent of all Catholics had a favorable opinion of the first lady; 47 percent held a negative view. Clinton Catholics liked his spouse, with 83 percent expressing support. Just 13 percent of Dole Catholics had a positive reaction to the first lady.
The abortion question
Abortion also proved to be a demarcation line in voting. Of those who believed that abortion should be "always legal" or "mostly legal," 68 percent and 55 percent respectively voted for Clinton. But among those who believed abortion should be "mostly illegal" or "always illegal," Dole won the most votes: 48 percent and 57 percent respectively. Republicans have staked much on the abortion issue, with some seeing it as a replacement for anti-communism in its appeal to Catholics. But the exit polls suggest the issue is a nonstarter: Fifty-nine percent of all Catholics believe abortion should be "always legal" or "mostly legal"; thirty-seven percent said it should be "mostly illegal" or "always illegal." A 1992 Gallup survey reported that 13 percent of all Catholics and 22 percent of Catholics who go to Mass weekly said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Thus, when candidate Clinton proclaimed that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," he was expressing the sentiments of a majority of Catholics on this sensitive issue.
In summary, the portrait of the Catholic voter that emerges from the 1996 elections suggests an interesting mix of demographic and social factors: women, Hispanics, Blacks, young and first-time voters, Catholics with working-class and middle-class backgrounds (incomes under $50,000 and less than a four-year college degree), all gave Clinton very sizable winning margins over candidate Dole, ranging between 53 percent and 81 percent. College graduates and Catholics with higher incomes split their support between Clinton and Dole.
When we look to the immediate future, we can expect the following: the black vote (at 4 percent of the Catholic total) to remain in the high 70s for the Democrats; Hispanics, now at 11 percent of the Catholic total, are sure to become a much larger percent of the Catholic total, as they come of age and as migration from Latin America continues. The Republican anti-immigration strategy has assured the Democrats of continued strong support from the Hispanics, barring some unforeseen misadventure. And the Democrats seem to have cornered the values issues that attract women, minorities, working- and middle-class citizens: Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment.
The M2E2 issues that Clinton has embraced, are traditional Democratic issues. But is there not also something Catholic about them? Catholics have long shared with Jews a special concern for community, for the commonweal. And if one looks closely at the social issues that the bishops have spoken to in their economy and peace pastorals in the 1980s, and more recently, in their opposition to the Republican-led attacks on M2E2, one can find in the 1996 elections evidence that Catholics, to the degree they feel economically secure, are willing to shoulder social responsibilities as they enjoy more and more personal achievement in income, education and occupation.
The 1996 elections suggest that issues like M2E2, along with family leave and other issues that focus on using government to carry out social responsibilities, may have more appeal to the electorate than the agenda being pushed by the conservative Christian Coalition, which emphasizes using government to control individual behavior. To the extent that the issues that dominated the campaign reflected differing religious perspectives, we close with the observation that Catholics constituted 29 percent of the total casting votes, while those who identified themselves as part of the conservative religious right constituted only 17 percent of the voting electorate in 1996. Dole won 65 percent of the vote of the religious right, but only 37 percent of the Catholic vote. And while the religious right constituted 27 percent of Dole's vote total, the Catholic vote constituted 32 percent of Clinton's winning total. There is much here to ponder as we head toward that bridge that will lead us into the 21st century.
National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997