The Catholic voter problem that surfaced in Iowa has followed Gov. Mike Huckabee to New Hampshire. In Iowa, Huckabee received strong support in predominately Evangelical counties, but his support fell sharply in counties with large numbers of Catholic voters.
There was no improvement in New Hampshire for the former governor of Arkansas. Sen. John McCain attracted the most Catholic support, 38 percent, while Huckabee received only 8 percent. In other words, McCain garnered almost five Catholic votes for every one going to Huckabee.
Huckabee did almost twice as well with Protestants as he did with Catholics — but not as well as McCain, who received the most Protestant votes (40 percent). McCain nearly attracted the same number of self-identified born-again voters as Huckabee, 30 percent to 33 percent.
It’s clear that Catholics, thus far, have not been charmed by Mike Huckabee. Some might argue that New Hampshire is too liberal for the former Baptist minister, but New Hampshire Catholics certainly are not liberal — they voted for Bush in 2004 over Kerry, 52 to 47 percent.
So why is Huckabee failing to connect with Catholic voters?
Last week I reported in a “Window” that Huckabee’s campaign was being dogged with charges of anti-Catholicism stemming from, among other things, his recent appearance at John Hagee’s church in San Antonio.
Hagee, whom the Catholic League called a “Veteran Bigot,” has published numerous mischaracterizations of the Catholic Church over the years, such as the following:
In all of [Hitler’s] years of absolute brutality, he was never denounced or even scolded by Pope Pius XII or any Catholic leader in the world.
Huckabee tried to distance himself from Hagee’s beliefs but did not cancel his appearance at Hagee’s Cornerstone Church. “I would certainly never characterize the Catholic Church as being pro-Nazi, never,” protested the former governor.
Huckabee, who believes he has the right message for Catholics, must nevertheless be frustrated with his low level of support among them. In an interview with Reuters just before the New Hampshire primary, Huckabee talked about the appeal he thought his campaign should have for Catholics:
I certainly believe that Catholics are right about talking about poverty, disease, and hunger. Things I talk about . . . I think a lot of Evangelicals have not talked enough about it quite frankly.
Huckabee jokingly added that there were so many Catholics on his staff that “we need some Baptists in this bunch here.”
If Huckabee can successfully address the issues of anti-Catholicism, he might find that his disconnect with Catholic voters is an issue of style rather than substance.
Steve Wagner, president of QEV Analytics, concluded his study of the Catholic Voter with a comparison of religiously active Catholic and Evangelical voters. The two voter groups had arrived at very similar stances on political issues. But, Wagner stresses, for a politician to reach these different groups, “effective political rhetoric will have different tones, different language, different emphases for Catholic and non-Catholic audiences.”
For example, Evangelicals tend to respond positively to strongly worded moral messages, while Catholics usually prefer moderated messages without any sense of moral condemnation.
The next stop of the campaign is the “Catholic” state of Michigan for its January 15 primary. Twenty-seven percent of Michigan voters are Catholic, while 18 percent are white Evangelical. The fact that 40 percent of Michigan’s voters attend worship services at least once a week means that the religious conservative vote is going to have a big impact on next week’s primary.
McCain, and even Romney, have shown they can attract Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals. Huckabee has yet to prove he has broad appeal.
Whatever the source of his disconnect with groups outside of the Evangelical community, Huckabee will have to fix the problem in order to win the nomination. The latest polling in Michigan shows Romney enjoying a slight lead in his home state (20.3 percent), with Huckabee (19.3 percent) and McCain (16.3 percent) close behind.
The only way Huckabee can prevail in Michigan is to garner a significant portion of Catholic voters, which he has been thus far unable to do. It will be interesting to see what kinds of adjustments he makes over the next few days before primary day in Michigan.