Barack Obama’s Catholic Problem

Image One story and demographic that has been more or less constant for Barack Obama has been his struggle to win Catholic voters. On March 4, I watched Ohio’s returns at a local bar and heard an Obama supporter dismiss his loss in Rhode Island by saying, “There are so many Catholics in Rhode Island he never had a chance.” I think this claim was simplistic to the point of almost being useless. I don’t claim to know a lot about much of anything, but I do know a fair amount about Roman Catholicism in the United States. For one I am Catholic and secondly, I have studied that very subject formally and informally for quite some time. Still, it is an important topic for Obama as his candidacy moves into Pennsylvania and likely to the general election.

Historically Roman Catholics have favored Democrats at last since Al Smith’s failed run for the presidency in 1928. FDR was fond of quoting Catholic Social Teaching that favors unions, living wages and capitalism moderated by the government. John F. Kennedy won over 80% of the Roman Catholic vote in 1960. However with the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, Roman Catholic voters have increasingly split between Democratic and Republican candidates with George W. Bush winning a majority of Catholics as a Republican in 2004 for the first time in the post-New Deal era.

It seems logical if the Democrats are going to reverse their losses in 2000 and 2004, they need to reclaim an advantage or at least achieve parity among Roman Catholic voters in 2008. If Obama is the nominee, the new “Catholic question” may dog him, but I think approaching the question as though a single Catholic Bloc exists that is to be wooed is a mistake. The reason for this is that Roman Catholics in the U.S. are generally the result of wave after wave of immigrants and the history of Catholics in the U.S. could be told with Maryland, St. Augustine, New Orleans, French Canada, the Southwest, California, Cuba, Puerto Rico or Ellis Island at its epicenter. Each group of Catholics in the U.S. looks to a different point of origin for their U.S. identity. Recognizing which group Obama is dealing with will help him to know if and how he should try to win their votes.

There is No One Catholic Bloc but Several Catholic Groupings

To my mind, Catholics stopped voting as a bloc the moment their immigrant identity was no longer a dominant marker in society. Despite Catholic stances on the economy being more at home in European politics than even in Democratic policy stances, many Roman Catholics have voted on abortion as a single issue or have voted with corporate interests as their family trees have climbed the economic escalator in the U.S. Here is a brief breakdown of the Catholic Groupings within the U.S. Political Landscape and Obama’s Prospects with Each:

1. Single Issue Roman Catholic Abortion Voters: This group may prefer Obama to Hillary Clinton who is endorsed by EMILY’s List and may have reservations about John McCain, but Obama will not win even a small fraction of their votes.

2. Spanish Speaking Catholics: Hillary has dominated Obama among older Latinos and won that majority of votes in Texas, Nevada and New Mexico. Bill Richardson’s endorsement helps Obama mightily with this group if he is the Democratic nominee. Anti-immigrant rhetoric even has traditionally conservative Cuban Americans worried about the treatment of Latinos in the U.S., and the inroads George W. Bush made in the Latino community are likely going to be undone in November.

3. Established Catholics: Obama has done well with what the media have been calling “upscale liberals.” Moderate and liberal Catholic intellectuals seem to like Obama and will likely gravitate to him in November if they have not already done so.

4. Working Class Catholics: This group has yet to totally warm up to Obama despite traditional support of Democrats on economic issues. Obama has not been as comfortable wearing his populist hat as he as been in promoting a broad vision. Younger voters are drawn to vision, but older voters may be more worried if social security or their factory pension will be around when they retire. This group is likely in play in November as McCain could siphon voters who economically are favorable to generic Democratic positions.

5. African American Catholics: Some might think this group is small and in a sense it is. Still, Louisiana and Mississippi in general and New Orleans specifically have a large number of African American Catholics. Maryland also boasts a population of African American Catholics. This group is already solidly behind Obama.

6. New England and New York Catholics: This group has been most problematic for Obama. Machine politics still exist in Rhode Island where Obama lost by 23 points. Obama lost big in Massachusetts on Super Tuesday despite the state’s two Catholic U.S. Senators, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, endorsing Obama. Finally, New Yorkers Andrew Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro have thrown bare knuckle shots at Obama that in some corners would be considered crossing into racist territory. My guess is these states are so blue that Obama will win them, but a rift does exist based upon the identity politics of the region. Yes, I am claiming that some northern states have racial and ethnic tensions.

7. Neo-Conservative Catholics: Much like the single issue abortion voters, Obama has no chance with this group.

A Strategy for Winning Some of these Voters Over in November

1. Start with his strengths: Obama should find prominent Catholic politicians and public figures from Louisiana to help him reach out to other branches inside of the big Catholic tent. Also, Catholic intellectuals associated with places such as Georgetown, Boston College and Notre Dame who are willing to get behind him could serve as liaisons on his behalf. Any ties Obama has to Polish and Slavic Catholics in Illinois can also be extended to his benefit.

2. Mend fences with Latinos next: Bill Richardson endorsed Barack Obama in large part due to his address on race in the U.S. Hispanics have known and will likely know even more prejudice as immigration becomes a massive issue. Groups such as Puerto Ricans, Californios and Chicanos have deep roots in the U.S.; yet are likely to be demonized by the likes of Lou Dobbs. Obama, with the help of leaders such as Richardon, can make a major dent here.

3. Work on his populist appeal: Economic issues are likely to shape a majority of the domestic policy debates in November. Catholic and non-Catholic members of the working class are going to get fired up by a candidate who sounds as though he or she can navigate rough economic waters. Obama has to improve on this as a candidate. The Catholic Church leadership has opposed Iraq and supports a living wage. Like FDR, Obama needs to work that into some speeches.

4. Show some toughness in facing players such as Ferraro: New Yorkers have a swagger and will respect Obama if he weathers the storm even if it means their Senator is eliminated.

Opportunity to Grow his Base

Obama needs to view Clinton’s Latino support, blue collar victories and her strength with the Rhode Island machine as a testament to the relationships she and Bill cultivated with those groups over the years rather than a rejection of his candidacy. If he does that, Obama can win a fair share of these voters in November.

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