“If Giuliani and Clinton are the nominees, then Hillary Clinton will certainly win the Catholic vote in 2008.” This is the opinion of a chief strategist behind George W. Bush’s success with Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004.
Steve Wagner, president of QEV Analytics in Washington, D.C., isn’t happy in reaching this conclusion. “Hillary Clinton, in spite of her pro-abortion position, will present a vigorous social justice agenda that will fill the void created by the GOP candidates.”
For Wagner, none of the major Republican contenders has any special appeal to the Catholic voter.
In a November 1998 article in Crisis Magazine, Wagner demonstrated that reaching out to Mass-attending Catholics was the key to winning their vote. This basic insight became the bedrock of President Bush’s Catholic outreach in 2000 and 2004.
Wagner sees Catholics being on the “sideline” during the GOP primaries: “They will split along the lines of voters as a whole.”
I asked him whether it’s too late for a candidate to appeal directly to Catholic voters during the primaries. “Someone like Fred Thompson could announce his choice of vice president the way Ronald Reagan did in 1976 — the right running mate could galvanize Catholic voters and other people of faith.”
Then I asked him whether Rudy Giuliani has a natural affinity with Catholic voters. Wagner pointed to the example of John Kerry. “Kerry was punished for being a pro-abortion Catholic. Giuliani is wise not to talk about being a Catholic, or he will suffer the same fate.”
In other words, Giuliani’s ethnic identity as a Catholic will not help him very much, and it may hurt him with religiously-active Catholics.
Wagner believes Catholic voters are disappointed in the GOP, which makes them open to responding to the social justice agenda of the likely Democratic nominee, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Her message of helping the poor and those in need, in spite of her pro-abortion position, will be quite potent to Catholics when the GOP has nothing else to offer.”
Clinton’s social justice message will bring Catholic voters in her direction the way “compassionate conservatism” worked for Bush in 2000.
Wagner explains, “The Catholic discontent with Bush and the Republican Party is not about Iraq, or he would have lost their vote in 2004. It’s about their failure to deliver on the promises they made to address the moral decline of our society. Iraq and 9/11 distracted the president and the party from addressing the core concerns of Catholics and other people of faith.”
For example, none of the leading GOP candidates, according to Wagner, have talked to parents about the difficulty of raising their children in a hostile culture. They have failed to tap into the deep anxiety parents have about the future lives of their children.
“It’s hard to say what Republicans are about these days. The GOP does not have an issue identity that Catholics are interested in buying into,” Wagner says.
I asked him what factor is at play now with the Catholic voter that wasn’t part of the two Bush campaigns. “Economic hardship,” he answers quickly. “Economic pain is the sleeper issue of 2008 — the crisis in the housing market, labor and industrial issues, high gas prices, this is all highly relevant to Catholic voters.”
When I pointed out that Clinton’s emphasis on social justice will address economic suffering as well, Wagner agrees. “It’s quite brilliant, isn’t it? She’s not going to moderate her position on abortion, yet she puts forth a robust social justice agenda, responding to economic hardship, and Catholic voters will respond because of the silence on the GOP side.”
We ended the interview with a discussion of the impact of a Giuliani nomination on the 30-year migration of Catholics to the Republican Party. “Will it come to an end?” I asked.
Wagner’s answer surprised me. “A Giuliani nomination will interrupt the migration, that’s all,” he said. “His influence will not be irreversible. 2012 will be a whole different situation — the new candidate can restart the Catholic migration that began with Ronald Reagan in 1980.”
But for now, if Wagner is right, we face the prospect of a pro-abortion candidate belonging to a pro-abortion political party winning the majority of the Catholic vote.
If that happens, both parties can share the blame.