GOP needs Catholic realignment

The Republican Party must embrace a strategy that sets it on a course for majoritarian status or, like the Children of Israel of yore, risk 40 years of wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. While the party could tactically manipulate a few “wedge issues” to eke out a few more percentage points from independents and swing voters, or could attempt to match or even beat the Democrats in turnout of the base, these are just parlor tricks that would not build an enduring Republican majority. Each election would still go down to the wire, with limited assurance of victory.

The only way to construct a solid Republican majority is to target a large and persuadable segment of the electorate to shift toward the red. Think of the movement of African Americans toward the Democrats or the realignment of the South toward the Republicans. Scrutinizing exit polls taken after the latest and previous elections, I have found a bloc of voters who might be persuaded to try on cardinal red. Not Stanford fans. They’re too liberal. I’m thinking of Catholics, specifically white Catholics. If Republicans can find a way to welcome white Catholics into the party’s ranks, then the growing legions of minority Catholics might follow.

White Catholics are a significant share of the electorate, 18 percent in 2012. In the past few elections, Republicans have been up and down with them. In 2000, George Bush garnered 52 percent, edging Gore. In 2004, Bush pushed his advantage among white Catholics to an impressive 56 percent. McCain’s share of their 2008 vote fell back to 52 percent. And then Romney pushed the GOP share back up to 59 percent. Looking back further, in three of the seven presidential elections between 1972 and 1996, exit polls said majorities of all Catholics voted for the Republican. So Republicans have demonstrated that they can appeal to the white Catholic electorate, or that Democrats are repelling them.

To ensure that Catholics are a more solid and reliable supporter of Republican candidates, however, the party will have to change its platform in several policy arenas. It won’t be enough to simply trumpet being the anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage party. That’s already factored into the numbers and it’s not enough to make a difference. And being “anti” everything is part of the problem with Catholics who resist coming our way.

To attract more Catholic voters, Republicans must shift posture on three grounds. First, Republicans have to demonstrate a commitment to helping the truly sick and profoundly poor. Because Republicans have tainted their image among charitable Catholics by being so strident in rooting out the cost of the lazy poor and irresponsibly sick, it’s going to be hard to convince them that we care about the least fortunate. That can be changed. Republicans I know do indeed want to help the “least of these” and would welcome initiatives in this direction.

Republicans must also get the immigration issue right. The fastest-growing part of the Catholic Church is Hispanic. Five percent of the total 2012 electorate was Catholic Hispanic, a segment more than twice the size of the Jewish vote, but that got one-tenth of the attention. Leading Republicans must push aside the nutty obstructionists and insist on a practical and welcoming solution for hard-working, law-abiding immigrants.

Thirdly, Republicans must be consistently pro-life and redemptive in judicial philosophy, setting aside ridiculously harsh and financially burdensome criminal justice positions, including three-strikes laws and excessive use of capital punishment. 

These three political pillars — care for the truly sick and poor, immigration reform and a redemptive judicial philosophy — could support a bridge that makes the road ahead easier for some Catholics who have resisted Republican entreaties to move our way. Pro-life and pro-marriage platforms have sparked some interest, but more is needed.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.