The Catholic Vote—Which Way Does It Swing?

American Catholic leaders speak confidently about the voice of the Catholic voter growing louder in the public square. No longer can this largely white-collar, family-oriented, well-educated mass of 30 million voters—28 percent of the electorate—be counted on to trudge dutifully to the polls, as their mothers and grandfathers did, and pull down the Democratic lever. Such is the conventional wisdom. But how true is it?

Undoubtedly, the Catholics have become what is known in the political trade as a “swing” vote. But whither does it swing? And what impels that swing? And is a swing voter one who simply tacks to catch the political winds, easily led by trendy appeals? Is the Catholic swing voter truly a leader or simply another follower, tuned in to the latest polls and intent upon going with a winner?

These are the serious questions that the Catholic voter will answer in 1996. Clearly, the Catholic vote may be on the cusp of great influence, perhaps moving from being an enormous presence in American life—as Catholics have been for more than a century—to being a political dynamo, which Catholics have never been.

A year away from the presidential and congressional elections, there is growing evidence that helping the Catholic voters find a unified voice will be no easy task. As the first Catholic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith, was fond of saying, let’s look at the record.

Catholics shifted into the Republican column in the 1994 House elections for the first time in recent memory. More than 50 percent of white Catholics voted GOP, a significant barometer of change. But that came only two years after they had abandoned George Bush to give Bill Clinton 45 percent of their vote in 1992, and Ross Perot some 20 percent.

Catholics supported Clinton despite his unabashed support for abortion, despite serious accusations of adultery and draft dodging. Remember, that swing to Clinton occurred after Catholics had given Bush and Ronald Reagan unprecedented support in the 1980, 1984, and 1988 elections.

These results lead to the obvious question, “What drives the American Catholic voter?” The frank and honest answer is that we are not sure, and the evidence supports conflicting conclusions.

Take, for instance, the Catholic opinion poll released by the Catholic Campaign for America during its recent Washington conference. While CCA officials heralded it as concrete evidence of the arrival of a Catholic bloc, making a massive shift rightward, its findings could easily be interpreted as another signal that, politically, Catholics are a hung jury.

Yes, there was solid proof of a swing to the conservative end of the political spectrum in the results of some questions the CCA poll asked of 749 registered Catholic voters. For instance 76 percent said welfare programs “foster individuals to become more dependent upon such programs,” while only 15 percent said they “encourage individuals to become self-sufficient.” Further evidence of the Catholic shift rightward was seen in the 89 percent who said government policies should be “based on qualifications and merits of the individual.” Only 4 percent backed favoritism based on race, gender, or sex.

Moreover, fully 83 percent agreed that parents and families should he “given more control over where their children go to school.” Impressive numbers.

But what exactly does this mean? Those findings certainly cannot automatically be interpreted as meaning Catholics will vote en masse for candidates who back sharp cuts in spending for the poor and the elderly, or that they will seek out the man or woman who hacks a school voucher or a tuition tax break or who opposes affirmative action.

And here’s the clincher.

The CCA poll discovered that 41 percent are more likely to vote for a candidate who opposed abortion. But 31 percent said they were “more likely to vote for someone who favors abortion.” Another 15 percent said abortion positions of the candidate would make “no difference.” Despite the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Catholic Church on the issue of abortion contained in the Catechism and enunciated in so many encyclicals, addresses and apostolic letters of His Holiness, John Paul II, the Catholic voter seems uncommitted to make a pro-life position a litmus test for politicians. This is no less true in Poland that it is in the United States. It is hard to conceive that other people of faith would be as “democratic” with regard to candidates that affect their most core principles. Members of the Jewish faith are not likely to divide their votes between those candidates who support a strong state of Israel and those who do not.

It is a staggering disappointment to anyone hoping and expecting that Catholics are poised to leap into 1996 and thrash away at candidates who continue to threaten the lives of the unborn with this postmodern holocaust called abortion. The most shocking statistic is that almost one of three Catholics say they will actually favor a pro-abortion candidate. Favor them! Another 1.5 percent say abortion registers zero on their political Richter scale. Astonishing! The plurality of the Catholic vote is not against abortion if the CCA figures are right (they have a plus or minus 3.7 percent error factor). There is a slight edge in these numbers for the pro-abortion side, the reflection of a surprisingly large group of Catholics for whom one of the basic teachings of their church has no impact.

Looked at in the cold-blooded fashion of the James Carvilles and the Haley Barbours and the Dick Morrises of the political profession, these are pocketbook numbers.

Rather than tracing the outlines of a bloc of morally conscious and spiritually vibrant group of voters, the CCA poll can easily be interpreted as the reflection of a relatively successful middle-class group eager to defend the barricades of their economic well-being against a swelling underclass. Looked at another way, it can be seen as describing a group of voters for whom fairness is a cardinal virtue.

But let’s face it—no revolution was ever fought and won waving the banners of fairness. The bald-faced truth buried deep in the CCA numbers may be that the Catholic voters haven’t found an issue overwhelming enough to draw them from their comfortable curtained homes into the public square, where people get bruised, reputations are sullied unfairly, and abuse is the coin of the realm.

Rather than being the trumpets of the arrival of a cavalry division of Catholics at the polls, the Catholic Campaign for America’s poll is more useful as a wake-up call for organizers hoping that they can organize a Catholic spiritual crusade in 1996.

One would hope that Catholics, like most other believing Americans, would want a president who reflects a love of life from conception to natural death, as well as decency, honesty, compassion, family values, strength of character, and other qualities of leadership. But we are not sure that “love for life” really drives the Catholic vote more than, say, “the economy, stupid” mentality. Perhaps even Catholics who are true believers in the gospel of life have become a bit cynical of politicians who mouth all the right pro-life positions, but when elected do precious little to change public policy in favor of life. They remember all the rhetoric about how important it was to vote for the Republican candidate in order to move toward a Supreme Court that has respect for life and witnessed the majority of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush nominees vote solidly in the pro-choice camp. Richard Nixon’s appointees were the authors of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, and the appointees under twelve years of Reagan-Bush did nothing to reverse the decision. Nixon’s appointees were pro-abortion, except for Chief Justice William Rehnquist; Ford’s one appointee is pro-abortion; Reagan’s turned out two pro-abortion and one pro-life, and Bush’s two appointees were split.

Of the nine nominees to the Supreme Court that were confirmed during the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, only three—Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas—are solidly pro-life; the rest—Powell, Blackman, Stevens, O’Connor, and Souter—are varying shades of pro-choice or more accurately, pro-abortion. Clinton’s two nominees met his litmus test of being solidly pro-abortion. This explains the frustration of pro-lifers and their current uneasiness with one choice between parties.

President Reagan was a master at convincing people about the value of life, and we should give him credit for communicating the love of life so well, but neither he nor President Bush personally received the leaders of the January Right to Life March in the Oval Office, but were content to send “personal messages” to the shivering marchers. Above anything, people of faith hate hypocrisy just as our Lord did.

We know that Catholics will reflect public opinion in 1996. But the more important question is whether Catholics will actually be able—or willing—to move public opinion on the side of human life and liberty and a rebirth of America’s spiritual greatness.

The debate is over whether we move toward a “civilization of love,” away from a “culture of death.” Politicians from either party should not take the Catholic vote for granted. Neither political party has a monopoly on truth with charity—twin pillars of Christian living.

For true believers who are registered Democrats, it will not be enough to hear Republican politicians say, in effect, “read my lips”; they will want more than words to convince them to leave their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party. For registered Republicans, if the party offers them candidates who are lukewarm to their cause, they will be lukewarm toward their candidacy. Richard Nixon’s political nostrum of moving right to get the nomination and then moving left to get the election seems out of touch with the realities of the nineties when believers want a president who is serious about restoring values to the American bloodstream. Independents will swing their votes to whichever candidates best reflect their values, and it is hoped this will be tilting on the side of pro-life candidates as they did in the 1994 congressional elections.

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