The “Catholic vote” is the key for the reemergence of the Democratic Party as a competitive force in presidential elections. Party chairman Howard Dean summarized the recent problems when he said, “The Democratic Party was built on four pillars — the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions and African Americans. But we stopped communicating with the Catholics and with labor.”
We may, however, be witnessing a reemergence of the Catholic pillar within the Democratic Party. For one, national party leaders selected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine — an avowed Catholic — within mere weeks of his election in 2006 to give the opposition response to the president’s State of the Union message. Then there was the decision not to distance the national party from the Senate campaign of pro-life Democrat Bob Casey Jr., in contrast to the treatment accorded to his father.
The question now is whether the Democrats can sustain this moderation continuing through the natural polarization of the nominating process.
Catholics, who have historically voted Democratic, have favored the winning candidate in 15 of the last 20 presidential elections. In 1996, Clinton carried the Catholic vote nationally by a margin of 54-37, compared to 52-47 for Gore. The most recent election saw a major reversal: 47-52 in favor of the Republican candidate. In Ohio, the key swing state in 2004, the Catholic vote went 55-45 in favor of President Bush, thus ensuring his reelection.
The Democrats, who have lost their Southern base over the past several decades, must win back and build upon the Catholic vote in order to win.
The current Democratic Party coalition is the product of Harry Truman and George McGovern. Truman’s morally correct embrace of civil rights led to the Dixiecrat walkout that ended the “Solid South,” resulting in a redirection toward a more urban party with a focus on social issues. The McGovern Commission reforms coming out of the tumultuous 1968 convention in Chicago led to the McGovern nomination in 1972 and a further leftward drift of the party. This shift led to a steady erosion of “pocketbook” Democrats like traditional Catholic voters, who support fairly progressive and activist economic policies but are more conservative on social issues.
The plain truth is that, nationally, the Democratic Party is and has been a minority party for some time. Congressional majorities that included Southern members elected nominally under the Democratic banner, but who increasingly voted with the Republicans, camouflaged the minority status of the party up until the 1994 loss of the House. The sole exception — Carter’s victory in 1976 — was produced by an outpouring of Southern pride that resulted in his carrying ten of eleven Southern states, by far the best Democratic showing in that region in any election after 1944. Southern support for Carter, however, dissipated four years later.
A sea change was signaled in the 2000 election when Gore, a Southerner, garnered all of his electoral votes outside the South (Clinton had carried four Southern states). John Kerry’s poor showing four years later confirmed the new status quo, and it’s one the Democrats can ill afford.
In two of the elections since the McGovern reforms, the Democratic nominee carried just one state (plus the District of Columbia). Only once since the election of Lyndon Johnson has a Democratic candidate — Jimmy Carter — received a majority of the popular vote, and that was by a mere tenth of a percent. In winning that election, however, Carter carried fewer states and had fewer electoral votes outside of the South than either Al Gore or John Kerry did in losing. To win, the Democrats need to do better with the two forgotten pillars — Catholics and labor.
The share of the Catholic population in the ten states most likely to vote Democratic is 31 percent, while the percentage in the ten states least likely to vote that way is only 17 percent. Significantly, the population in the swing states is 27 percent Catholic. The 26 states that increased their Democratic popular vote percentage in 2004 over 1988 also happen to be 26 percent Catholic. This comparison is a good test of core Democratic strength, in that both elections involved a non-Southern nominee (from Massachusetts) and no significant third-party challenger.
Looking ahead, the Population Reference Bureau projects that red states will pick up four electoral votes in the 2010 census; the two states that will gain the most seats, Texas and Florida, have Catholic populations of around 27 percent. Four of the seven states projected to gain House seats have Catholic populations of 26 to 32 percent. This has direct implications for the future composition of the electoral vote and the coalitions needed to win national elections.
Catholic voters are generally traditionalist — though not doctrinaire — on “values” issues, as that phrase has now been narrowly defined, while they’re more likely to be concerned with issues of “social justice” and supportive of government action to address those matters. A platform that is mainstream on cultural and national security issues and progressive on economic issues is consistent with the longstanding traditions of the party — and contains the key to Democratic revival on a national level.