Sanders gambles on Vatican visit

Sanders gambles on Vatican visit
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Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersPoll: Gillum leads DeSantis by 5 points in Florida governor race Sanders: Kavanaugh accusers 'have risked their lives to come forward' Helping citizens unite in post-Citizens United America MORE’s decision to leave the campaign trail to visit the Vatican only days before the crucial New York primary has perplexed Democratic strategists and other close observers of Empire State politics.

Sanders will leave the United States after Thursday night’s debate with presidential rival Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSenate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate for Russia probe Webb: The new mob: Anti-American Dems Clinton to hold fundraiser for Menendez in NJ next month MORE to attend a Vatican conference on “social, economic and environmental issues,” according to his campaign.  


He will be back in New York by Sunday, when he has an afternoon rally scheduled in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

But with New York voting on Tuesday, and 291 delegates at stake, spending two days out of the country is a big gamble.

Sanders lags Clinton by around 13 points in New York, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. But his campaign has shown signs of momentum in recent days, drawing at least 20,000 people to a Manhattan rally on Wednesday evening. Earlier that day, he received the endorsement of the 42,000-strong New York transit workers union.

Insiders wonder why Sanders would risk stalling his progress by taking a trip to Rome.

“I think it’s a real head-scratching decision,” said George Arzt, a veteran Democratic strategist who served as the late Ed Koch’s press secretary during his time as New York City mayor. “He has a lot of strength in New York. … He doesn’t need a win but a strong performance would continue the momentum he has shown.

“I don’t see what he gets out of it,” Arzt added of the trip.

The most apparent motivation for the Vatican visit would be to appeal to New York’s Catholic voters. In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary in New York, 37 percent of the voters identified as Catholic, according to exit polls. 

However, around three in five of those voters told pollsters they attended religious services less than once a week.

Experts say that the kind of social and political cohesion that was once evident in the Catholic community in New York is a relic of the past, just like the stickball games and subway tokens of Sanders’s youth.

“If this were 1955, I think this would be a brilliant move,” said Joshua Zeitz, a historian and the author of “White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics.”

“From the beginning of the twentieth century until well into the late 1960s, you had a very vibrant and insular white, ethnic Catholic population that, in New York, was almost exclusively Irish and Italian.”  

But, Zeitz added, “a lot of things have happened between now and then,” almost all of which have served to dilute the sense of ethnic and religious identity. Those factors include the large-scale movement of members of those groups from cities to suburbs, the increasingly secular nature of society at large, and the assimilation that occurs as families expand beyond their immigrant roots. 

This process is not unique to Catholics. The old maxim that any serious candidate for elected office in New York had to pay homage to the “three Is” of Italy, Israel and Ireland no longer applies, experts say.

Politics in both city and state is “very much changed,” from that time, Arzt said.

Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, said he did not “see the upside” of Sanders taking the Vatican trip. 

“I don’t know how much a trip to the Vatican plays to Catholic voters. Is it worth one point, two point, three points? It is worth any voters at all?” 

Some experts take a somewhat more generous view of Sanders’s decision. They note that, while the old ethnic strongholds of Irish and Italian voters have dissipated, there is another key group of Catholic voters that is expanding all the time. 

“New York City is not the New York City of 1966 and the demographics have certainly changed but the fastest growing group in the city of New York is Latinos,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic strategist in the city who is not working for any presidential campaign, though he personally supports Clinton.  

“Of course, you are also speaking of the first Latino pope,” Stavisky added. 

Pope Francis was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Others argue that Sanders may be looking to make a broader political appeal. Francis is broadly popular with American liberals writ large, in part because of his stances on issues including global warming, illegal immigration and income inequality.  

The Vermont senator could also be hoping to command headlines with his trip — although media coverage may largely depend on whether he actually meets the pontiff. The Vatican press office has said there will not be such a meeting. 

Finally, Sanders could also have an eye beyond New York. Catholics also make up a significant share of the population in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which hold their Democratic primaries on April 26 and June 7, respectively. 

But for all the factors that could be cited in defense of Sanders’s decision, most experts remain unconvinced.

“There is a certainly a rationale,” Stavisky acknowledged. “Is it the greatest rationale in the world? Probably not.”

“Maybe if he had done it closer to the election, it would have been OK,” said Arzt. “But now he’s going to get stories about leaving the field of play. It’s very perplexing.” 

“All in all,” said Muzzio, “I think it’s a mistake.”