The Pope, the President, and the Changing Catholic Voter

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George W. Bush was the first sitting president to attend a papal funeral. Such symbolism speaks volumes about the evolution in Catholic America’s voting habits during the past quarter‐​century and about Pope John Paul II’s role in that conversion.

Catholic voters were historically one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. However, Pope John Paul II played a significant role in converting many conservative Catholics into reliable Republican voters. This sea change demonstrated that the contemporary Catholic vote is now the most important swing vote in American politics. Catholics are the bellwether voters: as go Catholics, so goes the nation.

Throughout the 2004 campaign, Bush strategist Karl Rove maintained that, if Bush won the Catholic vote, he would be reelected. Rove was right. Last year, Catholic turnout was up six percent, disproportionately distributed in states such as Ohio and Florida. Bush, a Methodist, impressively won most of the Catholic vote against John Kerry, only the third Catholic to win a major party’s presidential nomination.

However, the American population is trending toward less religious observance, not more, and liberals attend church far less frequently than conservatives. Given this reality, how did the Republican campaign successfully bring the pope into electoral play?

As president, Bush adroitly employed networking, symbolism, and substance to maximum effect. Bush regularly networks with a conservative Catholic advisory group and well‐​funded conservative Catholic PACs supported his campaign. Symbolically, Bush gave the 2001 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. As president, Bush never ceased to court the pope, meeting with him several times, liberally quoting his words, and awarding him the Medal of Freedom.

Substantively, Bush emphasized the socially conservative positions on which Pope John Paul II and he agreed, going so far as to borrow the pope’s “culture of life” sound bite to refer broadly to positions on abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. Bush astutely chose to ignore serious cleavages over economics, foreign policy, and the death penalty.

In June 2004, Bush dashed off to the Vatican to meet John Paul II to exhort the pope to encourage American bishops to criticize Kerry’s stance on various Catholic‐​sensitive social issues. At that meeting, the pope told Bush, “I follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and family.”

The Bush campaign subsequently placed the pope’s picture on its campaign website under the headline “Catholics for Bush.” The RNC website contained entire sections tailored to conservative Catholic voters. Conservative Catholic leaders were emboldened by the pope’s lead on social issues and, in turn, they encouraged traditionalist Catholics to support Bush and fellow socially conservative Republicans.

Yet, the pivotal Catholic voter is not becoming a more socially conservative voter. Traditional Catholics are not gaining in numbers, but they are the most receptive to papal (and presidential) influence. Bush’s lead among religiously active Catholics grew from nine points in 2000 to 13 points in 2004. The secret to conservative Catholics’ electoral influence is that, in addition to being disproportionately located in the electorally critical areas, they have become far more politically active on their high‐​priority issues.

The president and the pope’s mutual emphasis upon social issues emboldened these Catholics to abandon voting habits based upon traditional bread‐​and‐​butter issues and, instead, to base voting more upon social concerns. Consequently, traditionalists increasingly perceive moral conservatism to be the political instrument of their faith.

In addition to responding to both papal and presidential political marketing campaigns, Catholics are drifting Republican for sociological reasons. Catholics become more Republican as they become better educated, wealthier, and more suburban. Interestingly, the Republicans have experienced the steadiest Catholic vote gains among younger Americans, particularly males, who are most attracted to the Republican rhetoric espousing fiscal conservatism.

John Paul II’s political influence extended beyond Catholic America. Therefore, the forthcoming selection of a new pope will reverberate throughout American politics on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, the faith‐​based initiative, judicial nominations, and stem cell research.

Ominously, perhaps, for the Republicans, the electoral deal between Catholic America and the Republican Party is only partially sealed. A new pope could potentially unravel this socially conservative coalition. Some conservative Republicans await the white smoke above the Vatican, signifying the successful conclusion of the papal conclave, with equal trepidation to many liberal Catholics.

A more theologically liberal pontiff — or one as conservative but less politically interventionist, or simply less charismatic than John Paul II — may provide an opportunity for the Democrats to regain some lost ground. Conversely, White House Republicans pray nightly for a conservative Latin American pope, to encourage further Hispanic conversions, or at least a reliably conservative choice.

One is struck by the contrast between Pope John Paul II’s influences in different parts of the world. He clearly helped to advance the cause of political and economic liberty in Eastern Europe. However, his political contribution within the American context advanced those who advocate a greater role for the state in shepherding individuals all the way through their private lives.

Catholic America’s enormous political impact demonstrates both the strength of modern American pluralism and traditionalism’s continuing resonance among an important segment of the electorate, a traditionalism that Pope John Paul II both visibly embodied and assiduously nurtured.