John Kerry's Catholic chase

There is a chance that this election will begin a significant realignment in American electoral politics. Catholics, once a reliable Democratic constituency, may be switching parties.

Democrats will rebut this notion. Recent polls by Pew and Gallup suggest that John Kerry’s support among white Catholics has rebounded somewhat. But the fact that major polling organizations are focused on Catholic views of the race this late shows that the winds of change are blowing.There is a chance that this election will begin a significant realignment in American electoral politics. Catholics, once a reliable Democratic constituency, may be switching parties.

Democrats will rebut this notion. Recent polls by Pew and Gallup suggest that John Kerry’s support among white Catholics has rebounded somewhat. But the fact that major polling organizations are focused on Catholic views of the race this late shows that the winds of change are blowing.

Four current and topical issues are driving this change: abortion, stem-cell research, cloning and homosexual marriage. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 58 percent of white Catholic voters believe that “moral issues” like these are “very important” when making their voting decisions. Liberals and conservatives are not likely to back off on any of the moral issues for years to come, so slowly but surely Catholics are being driven into welcoming Republican arms.

The latest Gallup Poll, released yesterday, has the race almost tied among Catholic registered voters, 50 percent for Kerry to 48 percent for President Bush. But that’s not likely to be the final result on Election Day. Gallup’s data show that Bush leads Kerry handily, 51 percent to 44 percent, among “good Catholics,” those who actually practice their religion. This is important because practicing members of any faith are more likely to vote. Kerry is strong among “bad Catholics” who don’t practice their religion or their politics with any regularity. (He’s one of them on the first count, but I suspect he’ll get around to voting.) It is only a surge in support among bad Catholics that has Kerry in the hunt, especially in some key battleground states.

The possibility that many Kerry-leaning Catholics won’t vote is a critical matter.

Annenberg’s latest survey says that 29 percent of Kerry’s total support comes from Catholics. If a sizeable number of them don’t vote, he’s in trouble. He knows this, and has tried various dopey schemes to appeal to them. The latest is quoting Scripture, a suggestion doubtless proffered from the risen Bill Clinton, who campaigned alongside Kerry this week.

If Clinton stays involved, expect Kerry to be toting an oversized Bible prop at campaign stops later this week. But this won’t work. Clinton’s Bible-waving strategy may have helped him once woo some white Protestant evangelicals, but it could turn off the wayward Catholics that Kerry needs. They probably like Kerry most because he’s a fellow fallen Catholic. If he starts getting all religious, they may get turned off.

The specter of Kerry quoting Scripture, delivering pulpit homilies on the last two Sundays before the election, and otherwise chasing Catholics also may turn off his mostly secular base. The Annenberg survey shows that only 10 percent of Kerry’s supporters attend any religious service more than once a week. Twice as many, 21 percent, “never” attend religious services. So when Kerry suddenly “gets religion,” he may be turning off one in five of his “committed” voters.

The other wild card in the chase after Catholics is what Catholic leaders do and say in the closing days of the election. It seems that most of the energy is being exerted by conservative Catholic figures, clergy and laity. While some of the mob is demonstrating outside Catholic events decrying Bush and the Republicans as warmongers (“War is a life issue, too!”), few bishops or Catholic intellectuals are on this course. In fact, most Catholic leaders seem intent on going as far as the law allows in advocating for church-approved positions on key moral issues.

Pamphleteering by conservatives among Catholics may be as important this time as it has sometimes been for white evangelical Christians.

Some Catholic intellectuals are not even being polite. Barbara Kralis, a conservative Catholic columnist, protests Kerry’s claim that he was an altar boy. She recently reminded her readers that Adolf Hitler, too, was once an altar boy. That’s intensity.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.