Why Barack Obama Will Not Win the Catholic Vote

Deal W. Hudson
January 7, 2008

To win the White House in 2008, the Democrats have to win back the Catholic voters they lost to the GOP in 2000 and 2004. A previous Window forecast that if the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, she would win the Catholic vote. However, with his commanding victory in the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama may be well on his way to upsetting the presumptive nominee.

But what will his prospects be for winning the necessary Catholic vote? Recent polling and expert analyses suggest that Obama will actually have a difficult time connecting with Catholic voters.

Pew Research Center poll released last November showed Obama trailing Clinton 17 percent to 45 percent among white Catholics. Among mainline Protestants, Obama was preferred by 25 percent; black Protestants, 36 percent; and religious but unaffiliated voters, 27 percent.

It must be troubling to the Obama campaign that his level of support among white Catholics is significantly lower than among other religious voters. In fact, this was the greatest drop for any presidential candidate between his or her overall percentage and the percentage among a specific group.

These numbers did not surprise Steve Wagner, president of QEV Analytics and an expert in political polling of Catholic voters. Wagner thinks Clinton is a bigger threat to take the Catholic vote back from the GOP.

According to Wagner, Clinton’s advantage is her ability to put forth “persuasive arguments on key social issues.” Obama has yet to make these kinds of arguments. Rather, he attracts a “substantially frustrated constituency of people far to the left who don’t feel they have representation. Catholics aren’t feeling deprived.”

Wagner’s description of Obama’s following sounds much like what I have heard from politically active Catholic liberals over the years. I asked Wagner if the Catholic left would be able to help Obama: “There just aren’t many people fitting that description. Liberal Catholics are trivial as a constituency because they are so small in number.”

Wagner predicts that the only religious voting group who will strongly support Obama is religiously active African-American voters. (There was concern recently that Obama was not connecting with African-American ministers, but he seems to have picked up some important support lately.)

The underlying danger of Obama for Democrats, according to Wagner, is that he is returning to the “interest-group politics” that started in the 1970s with the McGovern campaign.

A recent book by pro-life Democrat Mark StricherzWhy the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party, describes the revolution in the Democratic Party brought about by the 1972 McGovern Commission, mandating that convention delegates be selected by a quota system of race and gender.

According to Stricherz, it was the white, largely ethnic Catholic who got pushed aside in the Democratic Party when the quota system was enforced. Most of these Democrats were Catholic and pro-life; they were replaced by pro-abortion feminists.

The Democratic Party, it is widely recognized, is still trying to recover from the McGovern revolution, which triggered the steady migration of Catholics into the GOP. If Wagner is right, Obama’s politics will remind Catholic voters why they left the Democratic Party in the first place.

Another big problem Obama will have with Catholics, Wagner says, will be his brand of patriotism. Last October, Obama suddenly removed the America flag pin he has been wearing since the start of the campaign. He said it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the attacks of 9/11.

Catholics will bristle at the reminder of that incident, which will inevitably come up in a presidential campaign. As Wagner put it, “Catholics are patriotic, and the Obama campaign will contain implicit criticism of America throughout its message.”

I asked Wagner whether Obama, if nominated, would be able to move toward the middle, like Senator Clinton and Governor Romney have tried to do.

“Romney had four years to remake himself, but Obama will have only four months to reinvent himself,” Wagner said. “His leftish populism is not going to play in a general election.”

Wagner’s view of Obama stands in stark contrast to the opinion of many Democrats. No less than Ted Sorensen, a former speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, has heralded the junior senator from Illinois as JFK’s heir.

Kennedy won 83% of the Catholic vote in 1960. In this respect, at least, Barack Obama will be no JFK.

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