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Do Catholics Vote as a Bloc Anymore? No Nastiness or Dirty Tricks, Please


Catholics on the Bubble in This Election

Every election tests our understanding of who we are as a people, where we want to go and how we want to get there. Catholics in particular will struggle at the ballot box come November 5. There is no perfect candidate. In fact, "perfect" doesn't exist this side of heaven.

Catholics are a pivotal swing vote in this election. Over the last 20 years, the candidate who appealed to the largest proportion of Catholics has won the presidency. Catholics constitute only about 25 percent of the population but they are a third of the electorate, mainly because they vote in heavier numbers than the general population. With their 25-30 million votes, Catholics are concentrated in 13 key states.

The Catholic vote is "the jump ball of American politics," according to Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. That conservative group tried to organize a Catholic Alliance early this year, but got headed off by Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. During the June meeting of the bishops, he emphasized that the bishops would pursue a nonpartisan election-year agenda. They would not shrink from entering the political arena, but as teachers with the intention of neither advancing nor undermining "the electoral fortunes of any individual or party." Added Bishop Pilla, "Of course, we will cast our own votes according to our moral principles and the Church's social teaching, and we urge all Catholics to do the same."

Already by last November, the bishops had spelled out the wide range of issues that should be taken into account by responsible voters in this election. (The full text of the U.S. Catholic Conference Administrative Board's statement can be obtained by calling the bishops' publishing office at 1-800-235-8722.)

Do Catholics Vote as a Bloc Anymore?

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press issued a report on American churches and politics in June. It reported, "There is an indication of a clear ideological schism within the Catholic population," with almost equal numbers of Catholics identifying themselves as Democrats, Republicans and independents.

As Chicago Tribune analyst Timothy J. McNulty put it, "Are Catholics more likely to share the views of Pat Buchanan or Ted Kennedy? Do they think more like Daniel Patrick Moynihan or William J. Bennett? The answer is 'yes.' It is exactly that range of opinion that perplexes and challenges Midwestern Methodist Bob Dole and Southern Baptist Bill Clinton."

Larry J. Sabato, coauthor with Glenn R. Simpson of Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, spoke to the annual convention of the Catholic Press Association last May. He said Catholics identify "with the Democratic Party's heart" but align with the Republican Party on social issues like abortion. They feel tugged between the two as the traditional preference of Catholics for the Democratic Party breaks down. In 1960, 80 percent of Catholics voted for John F. Kennedy, who became the first Catholic president. In 1964, 76 percent voted for Lyndon Johnson. By the time of the 1992 election, Clinton got 56 percent of the Catholic vote.

How will Catholics vote in this election? Prior to the conventions, Clinton was leading Dole among Catholics by two to one. How did this factor affect the party platforms? Dole, who had spoken to the Catholic Press Association in May, began during the Republican convention to soft-pedal his antiabortion stance to attract another key voting group, pro-choice women; he emphasized his record on values and moral vision; he pushed specific Catholic buttons like charity tax credits, school vouchers and $500-per-child tax credits. Coming off a Catholic backlash to his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban, Clinton chose to emphasize education and promises of financial help for college, and to declare that he intends to balance the federal budget but not at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.

No Nastiness or Dirty Tricks, Please

The conventions of both political parties were kinder and gentler than in the past. During their respective conventions, Clinton and Dole expressed respect for one another, then of course went on to declare their differences--but politely. Clinton insisted that he wanted this campaign to be one of "ideas, not insults."

By Election Day we will know if the candidates and the parties have managed to maintain the high moral ground. Recent campaigns have been distinguished by their general nastiness. According to Sabato's book, many incidents from the 1994 congressional elections involved dirty tricks, like "pollsters" in Maine calling to ask voters if their opinion of a Republican nominee would change if they knew he had defaulted on student loans (he hadn't) or "pollsters" in Alaska falsely asserting that the Democratic candidate for governor supported gay marriages and adoptions (he didn't). Such charges were made so late in the campaign that the falsely accused had no opportunity to respond.

When he was in the United States last year, Pope John Paul II praised democracy, but warned: "Democracy needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue if it is not to turn against everything that it is meant to defend and encourage. Democracy stands or falls with the truths and values which it embodies and promotes."

In this age when only 19 percent of Americans think they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time (in contrast to 76 percent of Americans in 1964), the problem with democracy is that we sometimes get the government we deserve. How we Catholics vote in this election will be decisive in determining America's future. So be active in the campaign, keep to the high ground and, above all, vote.--B.B.

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