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Pundits Debate: Does a 'Catholic Vote' Still Exist?
Mark Pattison
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, May 13, 2010
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—Although pundits and political experts have long pointed to a "Catholic vote," its effects might not be as strong as they once were, according to author Mark Stricherz.

A senior news producer for AOL, Stricherz pointed to large Catholic majorities for presidential candidates as far back as Adlai Stevenson, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Dwight Eisenhower for chief executive. Stricherz said 78 percent of all Catholics voted for John Kennedy, the nation's first and thus far only Catholic president, and 76 percent voted for JFK's successor, Lyndon Johnson. Even Hubert Humphrey, who came in second in a three-way race in 1968, carved out 59 percent of the Catholic vote, 16 percentage points more than he got overall, Stricherz said.

Since then, he noted, the Catholic vote has not been generally so large, nor as reliably Democratic as it had been dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's four electoral wins.

Stricherz, the author of the 2007 book "Why the Democrats Are Blue: How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People's Party," spoke May 7 at "A Washington Briefing for the Nation's Catholic Community" co-sponsored by Trinity Washington University, which hosted the conference, and the National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper.

Speaking with Stricherz was Dr. Patrick Whelan, a Harvard Medical School pediatrics professor who is president of Catholic Democrats.

Whelan said the media essentially ignored the three Catholics running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Christopher Dodd—to focus on non-Catholic candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

He said the media did much the same in the 2004 general election, when rallies were held in 15 cities for "National Catholics for Kerry Day" to promote the candidacy of Democratic nominee John Kerry, only to get scant coverage.

"Where do you put the religious left?" Whelan asked. A CNN exit poll conducted on Election Day "purported to show that all values voters were Republicans," he said.

Whelan said he and Alexia Kelley, a former Catholic Campaign for Human Development staffer, made a proposal to the Democratic National Committee to form a Catholic outreach strategy.

By the time the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination came around, even non-Catholic candidates understood the importance of the Catholic vote. Obama, according to Whelan, had two nuns on his Catholic outreach committee in Pennsylvania, although Clinton won that primary.

Obama had encountered Catholicism 20 years ago as a community organizer working on Chicago's South Side. He had an office in a parish rectory and he "went to Mass every Sunday for three years," Whelan said. "It was the first exposure of his to organized religion."

"Catholics are divided," Stricherz said. "That doesn't mean that there's no Catholic vote." He pointed to Michigan, Minnesota, New York and South Boston as "heavily Catholic" regions that can tip the scales either way.

"There's not just one Catholic vote, but several Catholic votes today," Stricherz added. And, despite the prominence attached by candidates and parties to winning Catholic voters, Catholic voting today is "a marginalized, more private affair," he said.

George W. Bush, as a Republican running on social issues, captured 52 percent of the Catholic vote in 2000 and 58 percent in 2004, Stricherz said. By this time, pollsters had determined that Catholics who go to Mass weekly tend to vote for the GOP, while those who go less frequently vote for Democrats.

One difference between today and an era when Catholics voted in sizable majorities for Democratic presidential candidates is "the extent to which both parties don't reflect Catholic social teaching in a way that was not part of the picture 50 or 60 years ago," Stricherz said.

Another difference, according to Stricherz, is that "there are more Catholic voters than there used to be," with a greater percentage of their membership voting than do adherents of other religions.

Stricherz said that while doing research for his book, he found an instance in Connecticut where the state Democratic Party assembled its slate for congressional and statewide races "at a local Knights of Columbus hall." Such a thing, he added, would not be considered today.

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