Catholic voters have always voted in record numbers for Catholic presidential candidates. From Alfred E. Smith to John F. Kennedy, Catholics have cast their ballots according to cultural standards determined by their faith.
This year one would think that America’s third Democratic Catholic presidential nominee, John F. Kerry, would be comforted by this voting history. But conflicting statements of faith and politics coupled with President Bush’s conservative agenda have created a major bump in his quest for the White House.
And now the question has to be asked: Can a Catholic still carry the Catholic vote?
Historically, the Catholic voting bloc has been a pivotal swing vote that has determined outcomes in numerous national, state and local elections.
During the 19th century and the early decades of the twentieth, the Democratic Party endorsed the concept of subsidiarity, simultaneously appealing to Northern urban Catholic immigrants and Southern agrarian Protestant nativists. Then in 1928, Catholic Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith brought out Catholic immigrant voters in record numbers.
Smith carried America’s 12 largest cities by a plurality of 38,000, whereas the 1920 and 1924 Democratic presidential candidates lost those cities by 1.6 million and 1.2 million votes respectively. Most importantly, the inner-city Catholic voters started a new shift in the balance of political power in the United States.
In the 1960 presidential race, the nation’s second Catholic Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, was saved by the Catholic urban vote in the rich electoral states of the Northeast and Midwest. In these regions, he carried over 80 percent of the Catholic vote.
Michael Barone reasoned that the Kennedy results “split the nation along religious lines, which is to say cultural lines, not along lines of economic class.” Put another way: Mr. Kennedy’s election was not a victory for liberalism; it was a victory for Catholicism.
In the late 1960s, however, there was a shift in the Catholic vote.
Many practicing Catholic voters felt unwanted in a changing Democratic Party whose leadership frowned upon Catholic values. As a result, these Catholic voters began to embrace politicians who portrayed themselves as antagonistic to cultural liberalism. Tired of being ridiculed by social engineers, they gave their support to candidates who promoted traditional values.
Now, in the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Kerry appears to have an uphill battle to earn the Catholic vote.
As Mr. Bush touts himself as the social conservative with a no-tolerance stance on issues important to Catholics, Mr. Kerry continues to struggle to separate his religious beliefs from his conflicting political voting record on teachings about abortion, funding of abortion, partial-birth abortion, gay rights, domestic partnerships and stem-cell research.
This has not set well with Catholic leaders throughout America, who have expressed their disapproval.
New York’s Alfred E. Smith Dinner, held annually in October, is the nation’s premier Catholic event. In past years, the dinner’s dais has showcased America’s leading politicians, including Mr. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Mr. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
Though unnoticed by a majority of the American press, the Smith Foundation board of trustees chose not to invite Mr. Kerry as a guest speaker, shattering any illusions Mr. Kerry may have had concerning the attitudes of many of his Catholic confreres.
The message was clear: The senator is not welcome in the circles of practicing Catholics.
This November, the number of Bush Catholics is likely to increase because many Catholics are angered by the specter of one of their own, candidate Kerry. This backlash may doom Mr. Kerry’s candidacy, because unlike non-practicing “cafeteria” Catholics who are congregated in the northeastern and far western states that Mr. Kerry will easily carry, practicing Catholics are a major voting bloc in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Missouri.
According to liberal political pollster Stanley Greenberg, these practicing Catholics are “those most committed to and identified with the church and most likely to bring their Catholic identity into politics.”
Right now, most pollsters agree that these states are moving in Mr. Bush’s direction. Mr. Kerry’s poor social-issues record has lead to Catholics in certain battleground states polling significantly more in favor of Mr. Bush than the general population.
If this polling trend continues, the real story of the 2004 campaign will be that practicing Catholics emerged to defeat a man who was baptized a Catholic, served as an altar boy and claimed he is a “believing and practicing Catholic.”
George J. Marlin, author of “The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact,” is the former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.