Catholic voters are now a looming presence on the fringe of both parties.

The year 2000 elections increasingly look like another turning point in American politics. The old issues that formerly ignited our passionscrime, defense, civil rights, balanced budget and abortionhave all but burned out. Neither party is clear about which new concerns will catch fire, even this late in the campaign. But one certainty remains: Catholic voters are important in this election.

Consider the following: (a) Catholics make up 24 percent of the electorate, some 62 million citizens, (b) Catholics actually vote at 4 percent higher rate than Protestants (the difference would be even more significant if Hispanic turnout were not so low), so the impact is greater than numbers alone and (c) the Catholic population is heavily concentrated in key states, i.e., those with high Electoral College votes, as the table below demonstrates:

 

State Electoral Votes Percent Catholic

California 54 28.9

New York 33 44.3

Texas 32 23.2

Florida 25 23.2

Pennsylvania 23 33.2

Illinois 22 33.2

Ohio 21 24.2

Michigan 18 29.2

New Jersey 15 45.9

Massachusetts 12 54.3

 

Finally, (d) Catholics vote somewhat differently than Protestants. If we had voted the same in the 1996 election, we would now be worrying about President Dole’s age! The last two presidential elections show dramatic differences. In 1992, 44 percent of Catholics voted for Clinton, while only 34 percent of Protestants did so. In 1996, 53 percent of Catholics voted for Clinton and only 35 percent of Protestants did so.

The voting record for Catholic women is even more remarkable, showing both a religious gap and a gender gap. In 1992, 44 percent of Catholic women voted for Clinton, while 39 percent of Protestant women voted the same way. In 1996, 59 percent of Catholic women supported Clinton, while only 47 percent of Protestant women did so.

More important than numbers alone is the fact that the Catholic vote is up for grabs. As William Prendergast has pointed out in a splendid book, The Catholic Voter in American Politics (1999), Catholics are now quintessential swing voters. (The statistics in this article are drawn from this book.) To the immense frustration of politicians and political scientists, they no longer fit dependably into the old political categories. A solid majority of Catholics are economic liberals: pro-safety net, pro-progressive taxation, pro-labor unions, pro-foreign aid, pro-environmental protection and pro-government regulation of industry and consumer productsall traditional Democratic themes.

On the other hand, the majority of Catholics are social conservatives: pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-drugs, opposed to the sex and violence that characterize the entertainment industry. These are all traditional Republican themes.

Nor can politicians discover the key to the Catholic vote by looking to church teachings. Catholics follow church doctrine only selectively, when they know it at all. Catholics use birth control and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the country, are quite tolerant of gays but are in favor of the death penalty and nuclear weapons. As a result, Republicans and Democrats make symbolic gestures and appeal to that part of the Catholic ethos they think will bring them a majority of votes. But both political parties have serious difficulties with Catholics.

First, a look at Republicans. Republicans have a complex history with Catholicism that, while not now well known, has left lingering suspicions. Torrents of anti-Catholic rhetoric filled early Protestant sermons and writings at the time of America’s founding. That rhetoric spilled over into the first national election won by Republicans. Begun in the 1850’s upon the collapse of the Whigs, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate in 1860. Stephen Douglas, his opponent, was defeated largely because of his stance on slavery, but anti-Catholicism played a significant role in the campaign, and probably in the outcome. Douglas was accused of being a Catholic (he wasn’t, but his wife and children were), which at that time was analogous to later accusations of being a Communist. The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial on July 17, 1860, that said in part, as Catholicism and Republicanism are as plainly incompatible as oil and water, it is the right of the American people to refuse to entrust [Douglas] with the power whereby Protestantism and Freedom may be beaten down, and Popery and Slavery built up.

The Republicans won the election of 1860 and, as the Civil War progressed, came to see themselves as the party of abolition and general righteousness. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was a Republican song. But what does a party do when it has accomplished its main goals, in this case preservation of the union and abolition of slavery? It finds new goals. After the war the Republican Party turned to the task of industrializing the nation and became the party of business and private property. But it also remained the party of righteous reform. Having vanquished slavery, Republicans turned to the evils of alcohol. Prohibitionists, widely and enthusiastically led by Protestant churches throughout the nation, became the core of the Republican Party. There was much truth in the wry observation that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer.

These twin Republican supports of business and prohibition clashed head on with the rising tide of immigrants, overwhelmingly Catholics from Ireland, Germany and Italy. The immigrants were the laborers who filled the mines and factories, struggled for living wages and safe working conditions, and drowned their sorrows in prodigious amounts of whiskey, beer and wine. Efforts to deny them good wages and cheap booze did not endear Republicans to the growing Catholic community.

To their credit, many Republican leaders saw the need to help immigrants become loyal, productive American citizens, and they worked to establish universal, free public schools. Unfortunately, on the local level and over the strenuous objections of such clear-sighted Republicans as Horace Mann, this usually meant blatant efforts to convert immigrant children to Protestantism. Intransigence on this issue triggered the development of a separate Catholic school system and further alienated Catholics from the dominant Republican Party.

By the 1880’s it became clear to Republican leaders that they could not win national elections without at least some Catholic support. In 1884 James Blaine, the Republican candidate, made a concerted effort to win over Irish Catholics. He insisted on removing all anti-Catholic references from the party platform and even had a priest speak at the convention. His efforts came to naught, however, when an enthusiastic supporter, the prominent minister Samuel Burchard, publicly derided Democrats as the party of rum, Romanism and rebellion. Republicans never garnered a majority of Catholic votes until President Nixon made his concerted effort in 1972.

Even after that initial breakthrough and further successes in the 1980’s, there has somehow never been a blending of spirits; suspicions linger. Despite many common interests, Catholics rarely reach the inner circles of the Republican Party. Republican leaders still make occasional gaffes like George W. Bush’s speech at Bob Jones University and the initial rejection of a priest to be the first-ever Catholic chaplain of the House of Representatives. And why, Catholics might wonder, did Mr. Bush choose Dick Cheney of Wyoming (a state with only three Electoral College votes) as his vice-presidential running mate over Tom Ridge, the popular Catholic governor of Pennsylvania (23 electoral votes)?

The Democratic Party has its own long and tumultuous history. Democrats trace their roots to the election of 1800, when the Jeffersonians, also known as the Democratic-Republicans, beat the Federalists in the nation’s first truly competitive presidential election. Andrew Jackson, a populist elected in 1828, appointed the first Catholic to a major office, when Roger Taney became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The real relationship between Democrats and Catholics began after the Civil War. As immigrants and outsidersthe target of Republican reform effortsCatholics had no political choice but to join the other outsiders, Southern whites, Jewish immigrants and laborers, in the Democratic Party. Will Rogers’s later comment, I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat, was a shrewd observation.

This looseness left room for the building of political machines among city immigrants, a skill at which the Irish proved particularly adept. This became a basis for Catholic political power, where the extent of morality seemed to lie in the distinction between honest and dishonest graft. In 1928 Democrats nominated the Catholic Al Smith for president, who lost when many Southern Protestants couldn’t stomach voting for a Catholic and either stayed home or voted for the Republican Herbert Hoover. In retrospect, Catholics can count their blessings; Smith would have been blamed for the Depression. Later, Roosevelt’s New Deal solidified the Catholic base in the Democratic Party. The Second World War reinforced Catholics’ confidence and sense of belonging in America, and of course John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 seemed to assure that Catholics would be forever Democrats. It wasn’t to be.

In the 1970’s the Democratic Party in large measure abandoned Catholic voters. Anti-war protests alienated labor; pro-choice court victories alienated more traditional Catholics; and of course the civil rights movement played havoc with many urban Catholic neighborhoods. But Catholics were also abandoning Democratic ideals. The Democrats remained the party of labor and of the new outsiders, African-Americans and feminists. As many Catholics climbed the socioeconomic ladder, tax cuts became more attractive than minimum wage hikes, and property values more important than union membership. Catholics became more culturally conservative. A majority voted Republican in 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. But as noted above, somehow there was never the spark to unite kindred spirits. In 1992 and 1996 a majority of Catholics voted Democratic. Even so, as the 2000 election shows, it has been a fragile and uncertain homecoming. Democrats dared not nominate a pro-life Catholic as a vice-presidential candidate for fear of alienating their feminist constituents, nor could they nominate a pro-choice Catholic for fear of conflict with Catholic bishops.

In a sense Catholic voters are now a looming presence on the fringe of both parties. But ironically, if the last 24 years of presidential elections teach us anything, it is that Catholic voters will provide a winning margin for the next president.

Paul J. Weber is a professor of political science at the University of Louisville, Ky., and executive director of the Grawemeyer Awards.