Is the Catholic Vote Giving John McCain the GOP Lead?

Deal W. Hudson
January 31, 2008

When Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed “maverick” Senator John McCain (R-AZ), many scratched their heads. But his endorsement, which bucked the conservative establishment trend toward Mitt Romney, has provided the winning edge for McCain.

Brownback surprised people with his support of McCain after pulling out of the race, the support he explained in his interview with me last week. Brownback’s view is that McCain is the most electable pro-life Republican in a national race. His decision is being corroborated by the primary results, especially McCain’s ability to attract Catholic voters.

All three of McCain’s primary wins – New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida – have been fueled by a high turnout of Catholic voters who have given most of their votes to the Arizona senator. Brownback, as chair of Catholics for McCain, announced on December 27 that he is creating a coalition that is pro-life, fiscally conservative, tough on national security, and compassionate on immigration.

In South Carolina, for example, McCain won the overall Catholic vote 45 percent to Romney’s 24 percent and Huckabee’s 11 percent, and Mass-attending Catholic voters 35 percent to Romney’s 28 percent and Huckabee’s 14 percent. Catholics made up 13 percent (57,579) of the overall tally of 442,918 total votes cast in the strongly Evangelical state. McCain had 19,577 more Catholic votes than Huckabee; his winning margin statewide with all voters was 14,843.

As in South Carolina, the Catholic vote provided the margin of victory in Florida for Senator McCain. Of McCain’s 95,273-vote victory over Romney, nearly 67 percent of that margin (63,549 votes) was Catholic. But the fact that McCain narrowly lost the white Catholic vote (which was 21 percent of all Florida voters) by a margin of 33 percent to Romney’s 34 percent shows the power of the Hispanic Catholic voter. Exit polling did not supply exact information, but McCain would have had to win the Hispanic Catholic vote by roughly a margin of 2 to 1 to win the statewide Catholic vote by 11 points.

McCain’s popularity among Hispanic Catholic voters is no doubt connected to his stance on immigration, which is so unpopular among the conservative grassroots (including many white Evangelicals). While candidates Romney and Huckabee wooed Evangelical voters by continually moving to the right on the immigration question, McCain defended his immigration views by calling simultaneously for border security and arguing that immigrants should be treated with the dignity they deserve as “God’s children,” which he explained in his recent interview with me.

Brownback, the leading pro-life Catholic in the Senate, was one of the original Republican co-sponsors of the immigration legislation introduced by John McCain and Ted Kennedy (D-MA). His position on immigration made it hard for Brownback to get traction among Iowa Evangelicals in the build-up to the Ames Straw Poll last summer.

But what was a liability among the Evangelicals in Iowa became a huge plus for McCain among Hispanic Catholics in Florida. In fact, it may be the case that even non-Hispanic Catholic voters are disposed differently toward the immigration issue than Evangelicals. There is research that suggests that a higher degree of hostility toward immigrants can be found among Evangelicals than non-Hispanic Catholics.

A Pew Research Poll released in April 2006 revealed that white Evangelicals are more likely than white non-Hispanic Catholics to perceive immigrants as a “threat” to American customs and values, 63 percent to 48 percent. And among both groups, the hostility toward immigrants lessened with higher degrees of church activism.

Brownback’s outreach to Catholics on behalf of McCain may well be connecting with pro-life, socially conservative Catholics who – unlike many Evangelicals – do not bear an animus toward McCain for his stance on immigration.

Whether this coalition can withstand the attacks of Republicans and movement conservatives with old grudges against McCain will be revealed next week. On February 5, 21 states will hold their GOP primaries on what is known as Super Tuesday. Many of those states have a high percentage of Catholic voters: Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, and North Dakota. Some of those states are both heavily Catholic and Hispanic: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and California.

Nine hundred seventy-five GOP delegates, or 41 percent of the delegate total, will belong to the winning candidates. With the delegates of so many of the larger states, all Catholic-heavy, being awarded on a winner-take-all strategy, McCain will very likely emerge from Super Tuesday as the apparent GOP presidential nominee.

Senator Brownback’s decision to endorse McCain may well have turned out to be the pivotal event in the revival of the McCain candidacy and his eventual nomination. Brownback’s role in the McCain campaign may also help create a distinctive Catholic arm of the Religious Right.

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