They comprise 22% of the US electorate and are decisive, but they do not vote uniformly and while they want a president of belief, he or she does not have to be of their faith, says Jonathan Alter
IF THE 2016 US presidential election is close, the future of the US may rest on the Roman Catholic vote. Catholics don’t vote as a bloc, but it’s precisely their political diversity that underscores the role of religion on election day.
Americans typically want presidents of belief, but history shows that they don’t reflexively choose candidates of their own faith.
Why, then, is the Catholic vote predictive? Because Catholics make up 22% of the electorate — a similar proportion to African-Americans and Latinos combined — and have been on the winning side of the popular vote in the last 10 presidential elections.
That calculus might have played into Hillary Clinton’s decision to choose a Catholic, Virginia senator, Tim Kaine, to join her on the Democratic ticket.
Barack Obama did something similar, by selecting Joe Biden, in 2008, and that helped him in states like Pennsylvania (where Biden was raised).
In 2012, Obama beat Mitt Romney by 50% to 48% in the popular vote. Obama’s margin with Catholics was — wait for it — 50% to 48%. Still, Catholic voters turned out in large numbers for Romney, whose Mormon faith is viewed by their Church as blasphemous and polytheistic, and un-Christian.
They were less enthusiastic in 2004, when having a Catholic atop the ticket — John Kerry — was no guarantee of carrying the Catholic vote, which President George W Bush did by five points.
That’s hardly a surprise. Some Catholics are conservative; others liberal. The swing voters are moderate, though they often opt for the more religious candidate, of whatever faith. That would favour Clinton, a Methodist.
Of course, Catholic voters have been defying their Church for 40 years by voting for Democrats who support abortion rights.
This year, the defiance of Rome is in the other party. In February, Pope Francis took the unusual step of commenting directly on a presidential candidate.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pontiff said.
Donald Trump promptly bit back: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” he said.
The pope was attacking Trump’s faith; not his politics. Trump’s faith — he’s a Presbyterian — was brought into question by none other than Trump himself, when he revealed his unfamiliarity with organised religion, by saying “I drink my little wine and have my little cracker,” instead of wafer, and by referring to a book of the Bible as “two Corinthians”, instead of “Second Corinthians”.
No matter. In the weeks after trading barbs with the Pope, Trump’s support from Catholic Republicans increased, and there was no sign of it eroding after he selected as his running mate Indiana governor, Mike Pence, who was raised Catholic, but left the Church and became an evangelical Christian.
The nostalgia of these Catholic Trump supporters for a bygone era, when America was “great”, is selective.
Many seem to have forgotten the “No Irish need apply” signs that greeted their great-grandparents when they got off the boat from Ireland, or the “dago” and “greaseball” epithets directed against so many Italian-Americans, when the WASP majority feared “dangerous” and “trigger-happy” immigrants the way Trump supporters fear Muslims today.
Trump’s plan, since downgraded to a “suggestion”, to bar Muslims from entering the country, offends large numbers of both Muslims and non-Muslims. But that doesn’t mean he won’t get any of the Muslim vote, estimated at near 7% of the electorate.
Jews, a reliably Democratic group, comprising about 2% of voters, will overwhelmingly vote Clinton.
To win, Trump must carry several recently-blue states, like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida — all with large Catholic populations. His best shot is to draw energised, white, working-class and middle-management Catholics to the polls.
The Democrats’ best bet is to ramp up turnout among Hispanics, who went 70% for Obama in 2012 — 75% among Hispanics who are Catholic.
While the number of Catholic Hispanics has been falling sharply in recent years, they still make up more than half of all Hispanics.
Will Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants being “rapists and criminals,” his bigoted insults to a federal judge, and his insistence that he will build a wall and deport 11m undocumented immigrants drive up Clinton’s Latino numbers? The rush toward naturalisation in many Latino communities would argue yes, though turnout will still be decisive.
Demography is not destiny in American politics. Too many variables get in the way, from the cut-and-thrust of the campaign to the math of the electoral college.
Forecasting how Catholics will break is the same. We’re a long way away from the era when big city bosses like Richard J Daley, in Chicago, or Carmen DeSapio, in New York, could deliver the Catholic vote on a whim. Now, it’s a Rubik’s Cube of complex uncertainty.
Jonathan Alter is the author of, most recently, The Center Holds: Obama And His Enemies.
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