Can Kerry Carry The Catholic Vote?

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CBS News Political Consultant Monika L. McDermott looks at U.S. Catholics and finds that John Kerry is reasonably well positioned to carry this crucial block of voters despite his problems with church leaders over abortion and other issues.
John F. Kerry is the third Massachusetts Democrat to run as the party's presidential nominee in the modern era. The question is: Can he emulate the narrowly winning performance of fellow "JFK" and Catholic John Kennedy in 1960; or is he more likely to follow in the losing footsteps of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988?

The key to Kerry's fate may lie with a group of voters intimately familiar to any Massachusetts politician – Catholics. Catholics make up around half of the electorate in Massachusetts, regularly determining the fate of politicians running statewide.

And while their percentage of the voting public drops in national elections (26 percent in 2000), evidence suggests their votes are still influential at that level. In a close election, as this one is expected to be, a swing voter group like Catholics can make the difference between victory and defeat.

From 1948 at least through 1968, Catholics were reliable Democrats as a group, supporting Democratic presidential candidates in numbers greater than the public at large, and only supporting a Republican candidate once – giving Eisenhower 54 percent of their vote in 1956 – according to the American National Election Studies conducted by the University of Michigan.

Their most staunchly Democratic vote came, not surprisingly, in 1960. That year an overwhelming 83 percent of Catholic voters chose the Catholic Democrat John Kennedy over Republican Richard Nixon, helping give Kennedy an edge in his famously narrow victory.

By 1972, however, Catholic voting had changed. In that election, and in every one since, Catholics have cast their votes for the popular vote winner, in numbers not too dissimilar from the public at large.

In other words, Catholics have become a bellwether block – as go Catholics, so goes the nation. In the extremely close 2000 election, Catholics were nearly as evenly divided as the country as a whole, siding slightly for Al Gore over George W. Bush, 50 percent to 47 percent, and helping Gore to his narrow popular vote win.

So can Kerry win Catholics? There are some positive signs for the Kerry campaign on this front. First, Kerry has shown an ability to attract Catholic votes in his previous elections. Second, the current political outlook of Catholics is one of unhappiness with George W. Bush, and perhaps predisposed to give Kerry the benefit of the doubt.

Kerry's experience shows he knows how to win the Catholic vote. In his 1996 re-election to the Senate, Kerry faced a difficult challenge from Massachusetts' sitting governor, William Weld, and many pundits predicted a Kerry defeat.

In the end, Kerry walked away with a seven-point victory, due at least in part to his support among Catholics. According to a CBS News exit poll in that election, Catholics made up 50 percent of Massachusetts' voters, and they voted 53 percent to 43 percent for Kerry.

In the presidential primary elections this year, Kerry showed a similar ability to attract Catholic votes, at least among Democrats. For example, in the nine Super Tuesday states that voted on March 2, Kerry won 62 percent of the Catholic vote, according to CBS News exit polls, running 10 points better among Catholics than he did among all voters.

His performance among Catholic voters in earlier primary contests was similarly strong.

Looking forward to the general election, Catholic voters seem open to a challenge to President Bush. According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll in late April, only 40 percent of Catholic registered voters said they approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing as president, while over half reported disapproval. In contrast, 47 percent of all registered voters approve of Mr. Bush's performance, as do 53 percent of Protestant voters.

Catholics seems specifically dissatisfied with Mr. Bush on the election's two most important issues – the economy and the war in Iraq. Only 34 percent of Catholic voters in the April survey said they approve of the way Mr. Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, compared to 41 percent of all voters. In addition, 58 percent of Catholic voters feel the war in Iraq was a mistake, while only 48 percent of all voters feel that way.

On the economy, only 38 percent of Catholic voters said they approve of the way Mr. Bush is currently handling it, compared to 45 percent of Protestant voters and 40 percent of all registered voters. And Catholic voters are not much more optimistic about the future of the economy under Mr. Bush – only 22 percent feel the economy will improve if Mr. Bush is re-elected.

Whether Kerry can capitalize on Catholic voters' dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush remains to be seen. One looming question is Kerry's relationship with the Catholic Church itself. Kerry has taken criticism lately from members of the Church hierarchy for political positions that run counter to the Church's, most prominently his support of abortion rights.

His problems with the Church may not affect his potential with its voters, however, as these voters themselves take positions antithetical to Catholic doctrine.

According to CBS News exit polls, in the 2000 presidential election 55 percent of Catholic voters voiced support for abortion remaining either mostly or entirely legal – a number virtually identical to that of voters at large.

Even on the year's hot moral wedge issue – gay marriage – Catholics do not appear automatically predisposed to the Church's position. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll in March, Catholics are actually more supportive of gay marriage or civil unions than are most Americans – 64 percent of Catholics said they support either gay marriage or civil unions, compared to 54 percent of all Americans.

It seems that Catholics are in play in this election, as in past elections. Among registered voters in the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, Catholics were leaning in favor of Kerry, choosing him over Mr. Bush by 46 percent to 40 percent, when asked whom they would support if the election were held at this early stage.

An additional one in ten had no initial preference in the race, and among those choosing a candidate, more than one quarter said their minds could still change before the election. You can bet the Kerry campaign will be hoping his Catholicism helps him capture this group, making the Massachusetts Senator's presidential electoral fortunes closer to those of Kennedy than Dukakis.

Monika L. McDermott is assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches and conducts research on voting behavior and public opinion. Before joining the University of Connecticut, McDermott worked in election polling for CBS News and the Los Angeles Times. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles.

By Monika McDermott