Beliefs Faith Institutions News Politics

Can Clinton-Kaine bring Catholic voters back to the Democrats?

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles with her vice presidential running mate Sen. Tim Kaine after accepting the nomination on the fourth and final night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Gary Cameron. Editors: This photo may only be used with RNS-CATHOLICS-CLINTON published July 29, 2016.

PHILADELPHIA (RNS) If there is one constant in this unconventional presidential campaign it is the unpredictability — and importance — of the Catholic vote.

Once a reliably Democratic cohort, Catholics have in recent decades swung back and forth between the two parties. And because they represent about a fifth of all voters, and are concentrated in key Midwestern swing states, the candidate with the most Catholic support has wound up winning the popular vote.

Catholics are also a diverse and constantly changing community thanks to immigration, largely from Latin America, and the exodus of cradle Catholics to other denominations or to the ranks of the unaffiliated.

That only adds to the difficulty of figuring out what Catholic voters are likely to do from one quadrennial election to the next.

“I always like to say there is no Catholic vote — and it’s important,” said E.J. Dionne, a liberal Catholic and Washington Post columnist who was watching the Democratic National Convention unfold this week on the floor of the Wells Fargo Arena in South Philadelphia.

As expected, white evangelicals are going solidly for Donald Trump and down-ballot Republicans, while Jews, African-American Christians and members of minority faiths, as usual, are going strongly for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

READ: Can Hillary Clinton finally close the ‘God gap’?

Since the 1970s, Dionne noted, each party is guaranteed about 40 percent of the Catholic vote. But it’s that middle 20 percent that is in play, and in a close election winning that bloc is crucial to each candidate’s chances in November.

That’s a key reason why Clinton picked the Catholic, Jesuit-educated Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate — and why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008, and why Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as his wingman in 2012 —  all Catholics. There has still been only one Catholic president in U.S. history — John F. Kennedy, a Democrat — and only two other Catholic presidential nominees, both Democrats: Al Smith in 1928 and John Kerry in 2004.

But it now seems almost a requirement to put a second in command who can tick the Catholic box. Even Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, likes to call himself an “evangelical Catholic” even though he left the Catholicism of his birth to embrace Protestant evangelicalism while in college.

Kaine delivered a powerful, faith-inflected speech on Wednesday (July 27) in which he spoke repeatedly about the centrality of his Catholic faith to his life and mission, and about his Jesuit education to be “a man for others” as the “North Star for orienting my life.”

Such talk comes naturally to Kaine, and his affable religiosity could well appeal to the many voters who are turned off by Trump’s bumptious antics and harsh rhetoric — not to mention his penchant for picking fights with Pope Francis, a popular figure who is also the first pontiff from the Jesuit religious order that had such an impact on Kaine.

“It’s not just the fact that he (Kaine) is Catholic,” said John Podesta, a veteran Democratic operative and chairman of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “It’s the fact of what’s at his core, what motivates him in public life.

“It’s really that core, that spiritual center that says, ‘I can make a difference in people’s lives if I apply myself in public life,’” Podesta said after a Mass Thursday held for convention delegates and activists at a historic downtown church.

Kaine’s reputation for integrity, as well as his relatively centrist political record and knack for coalition building, make him the anti-Trump in many respects.

READ: Why Trump has a Catholic voter problem

That could play especially well with Catholics, in particular undecided Catholics, who seem to be disproportionately represented among anti-Trump Americans: a recent Pew Research Center survey showed that Clinton leads Trump by a huge 19-point margin among weekly Mass-goers. By contrast, Romney led Obama by 3 points among that same group at the same point in 2012 — a 22-point shift for the Democrats.

Of course, how much any running mate actually boosts a presidential candidate’s prospects is matter of some debate. The conventional wisdom tends to agree with Richard Nixon’s adage that “the Vice President can’t help you … he can only hurt you.”

Kaine could put that standard to the test because he says he is personally opposed to abortion, but as a public official supports abortion rights and has a perfect rating from most abortion rights lobbies.

That stance has drawn sharp opposition to Kaine from anti-abortion Catholics and their allies. “Sen. Kaine is good at hiding behind his Catholic background — but no one should be fooled,” Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said when Clinton picked Kaine. “His record, and his openly declared legislative goals, are as pro-abortion as they come.”

Yet in spite of the media focus on that flashpoint issue, and the passions that inflame both camps, surveys show that voters generally don’t rank abortion very high on their list of electoral priorities.

And as Dionne said: “I think the Catholics who only vote on abortion have been voting Republican for a long time.” They were never likely to be wooed by anything Clinton did, and it’s a fair bet that Trump’s negatives would outweigh the reservations that undecided voters might have in regard to abortion.

Party leaders and activists here also seemed to believe that Kaine’s working class roots and his focus on pocketbook issues like jobs, economic inequality and affordable health insurance would matter far more to voters than debates over abortion rights and abortion reduction policies.

Moreover, the issue that is far and away most important to a key Catholic constituency — Hispanics – is immigration.

On that score Kaine, with his long support for immigration reform and his fluency in Spanish, which he learned during a year as a missionary in Honduras as a young man, easily beats Trump and provides a real opportunity for the Democratic vice presidential candidate to score points for Clinton.

The Pew survey, conducted in mid-June, found that 77 percent of registered Hispanic Catholic voters said they would support Clinton or were leaning toward supporting her, with just 16 percent backing Trump. The figures for registered white Catholics were a sharp contrast: 50 percent siding with Trump and 46 percent with Clinton.

The numbers so far, and the fact that Trump’s candidacy has scrambled so many of the traditional coalitions and agendas, has Democrats here feeling good about where they stand with the Catholic vote.

“I think the beauty of our faith is that it helps us formulate our ideas and our opinions and helps us think through the issues based on that faith,” said Kevin Washo, executive director of the convention’s host committee and a lifelong Catholic.

“And as we come down to the wire I think our party is in a good position to reach out to a lot of those folks.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


Click here to post a comment

  • No question that Trump will have a problem with Latino voters. Even amongst relatively conservative Latinos, the question of immigration policy is probably the “trump” card.

  • Despite uneasiness with some of what Trump says the Catholic bishops will push their flocks to vote against Clinton because f abortion. Kaine’s stand on abortion will especially rile them. The trend among liberal Catholics is for their children to leave the church, at least until they start raising children. One way or the other white Catholics will grow smaller in number and more hard-core conservative in politics. Ex-Catholics, a large number. will largely favor Democrats.

  • At the risk of stating the obvious, Hispanic Catholics aren’t part of the swing voter group…the battle, as usual, is over white suburban Catholics. Plus, at the moment, Hispanic Catholics are going to open opportunities for the Democrats in the sunbelt.

  • I think you meant that John Kerry was the first Catholic major nominee since John F. Kennedy. Albert E. Smith of New York was the first Catholic major party nominee, in 1928.
    Also, Nixon apparently didn’t always believe that adage of his. Supposedly one of the reasons he chose Spiro Agnew as his running mate was as a hedge against his own assassination.

  • Gibson omitted that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence said that Kaine’s positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, among other issues, “are clearly contrary to well-established Catholic teachings; all of them have been opposed by Pope Francis as well.”
    Re: The “Jesuit” pope. When the pope’s spokesman Lombardi retires, there will not be a single Jesuit official in the Vatican. The pope has not appointed or promoted another Jesuit.
    Re: The “Catholic” vote. The Pew survey shows non-Latino Catholics are now only 13% of registered voters. They comprise 10% of Dem RVs and 18% of Rep RVs. In the 1970s, European-descent Catholics were 24% of the US population but comprised 30% of the electorate. It’s only wishful thinking on the part of Gibson and Dionne that there is a significant “Catholic vote.” There are only voters, some of whom happen to still be Catholic.

  • Kaine doesn’t live in the Providence diocese or even all that nearby. Find a quote from Kaine’s parish priest in Richmond. if you want a clerical viewpoint that actually carries some weight.

  • White suburban Catholics are far more likely to discount church stances on most subjects. Tending more towards lapsed Catholics than reactionary hard core believers. They are far too mixed a crowd politically to be considered a bloc which can be appealed to directly for both parties.

  • The Clinton/Kaine ticket and the Dem platform are certainly more in sync with the best Catholic social justice thinking than the Trump/Pence ticket and Repub platform. Plus, Kaine is a practicing Catholic while Pence abandoned the Catholic church to become an evangelical fundamentalist unfriendly to religious liberty. We should see a big shift of Catholic voters shift from Trump to Hillary. — Edd Doerr

  • My point was that Gibson is always very selective in his reporting to make sure this pope is portrayed as a liberal.

  • Hispanic Catholics are not swing voters, but their lack of support will certainly not help Trump especially in terms of sheer numbers.

  • No one thinks that Trump will go after them, like in the Holocaust. But,
    then again no one thought he would try to deport millions of
    undocumented aliens back to Mexico and other countries. He doesn’t yet
    have “Brown Shirts” (Enforcers). Someone has to round up millions of
    people! Then, he will go after any group that opposes him. Watch out

  • Kaine is a fraud It is like being personally against slavery but he votes for slave owner every time

  • Here are several indications: 1. The overwhelming majority of US (and and European Catholics use contraception; 2. Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholic women; 3. Catholic school enrollment has dropped from 5.5 million in 1965 to 2 million today, due, as Catholic university studies have shown, to changing personal preferences; 4. Catholic voters have been trending Democratic, despite the bishops’ leaning toward the GOP; 5. Most Catholics disagree with the bishops on clerical celibacy and ordaining women. Is that enough? — Edd Doerr

  • Many practicing Catholics try not to practice artificial contraception. It is easier now because of Natural Family Planning. Sometimes Catholics fail but then they try again. Catholic voters use to be 100% Democrat. Catholics who go to Church are finding it harder and harder to vote for these pro-abortion Democrats. The Democrats have lots the majority in legislatures in state after state. They have also lost the majority in Congress. I still find it hard to vote Republican so I often blank it.

  • NFP does not work very well and most Catholics know it. The June 2016 poll showed Catholics preferring Clinton over Trump by a solid margin, including Catholics who attend mass every week. Adding practicing Catholic Tim Kaine to the Dem ticket and ex-Catholic turned far right fundy Pence to the GOP ticket will only push more Catholics to the Dems. — Edd Doerr

  • 1.NPR does work very well.2.I would hope that no practicing Catholic would vote for Donald Trump3. Tim Kaine is still a fraud

  • One issue the press does not bring up is why so many women support support Hillary. It’s because we have now reached a so-called critical mass of women who have had abortions. At some level, both conscious and/or subliminal, those who have opted to terminate the “whatever” need to keep doing so legal because doing so somehow legitimizes their choice and pain in many cases.
    Interestingly, I became pro life after going to Gettysburg Battlefield and realizing that the numbers killed there were NOTHING to those terminated via abortion.

  • Yes, and who are voting to keep the abortion industry afloat. Sorry, but I am calling a spade a spade. You need to talk to someone who has performed and/or watched an abortion. Inform yourself.