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Why Is Obama Having Trouble with White Catholics?

A puzzled Chris Matthews turned to the camera.  He had just finished grilling two guests on his TV show, “Hardball,” about voting patterns in the recent Pennsylvania primary.  Yet the behavior of one group still seemed hard for both he and his experts to explain. Its members’ motives, Mathews sighed, were as inscrutable as “a tribe in New Guinea.” 

The group whose behavior seemed so inexplicable? Matthews’s ( Holy Cross College class of 1967 and Blessed Sacrament parish) own, white Catholics, whose support for Senator Hilary Clinton was as impressively large and consistent as almost any other definable demographic or cultural group in the voting public during the primary season.

The Clinton Catholic vote first emerged in New Hampshire, where in her unexpected comeback Clinton won 44% of the Catholic vote to 27% for Obama.  That spread was noticeably higher than her support among Protestants or voters claiming no religion.  Her high Catholic percentages continued in states she won, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and some she lost, such as Connecticut.   She did not win the white Catholic vote everywhere, more or less breaking even or losing in Wisconsin, Missouri and Maryland (and probably Iowa, but exit polls did not record it).  A string started on the Clinton Catholic vote on the Catholic magazine Commonweal’s blog on February 6; the New York Times noticed the Clinton Catholic trend on February 8, “Catholic Vote is Harbinger of Success for Clinton”; and NPR, the New York Sun and the Pew Forum among others addressed it directly over the succeeding months. It also became a staple of broader analyses of the primaries in the Washington Post, Newsday and a host of other newspaper and magazine articles and political blogs.    

Yet as Mathews found out, it has been easier to document the presence of this Catholic vote than to explain it.  Scores of pundits, even some of the most secular of Democrats, have recently paid homage to the critical importance of religion in politics. A spate of books, E.J. Dionne, Amy Sullivan and others, and a blizzard of articles have lectured the Democrats on how to speak to religious groups.  Yet the focus has been on what we think we learned from the last campaign: that the world is divided between believers (people who attend church regularly) and unbelievers (people who do not) and it really does not matter what it is that the believers believe. Catholics who go to church, according to this analysis, are not any different than Methodist churchgoers. 

Confronted with this year’s stunning new Clinton Catholic phenomenon, some observers insisted on trying to parse out differences between Clinton and Obama on the “religious” issues like abortion or gay rights to explain it.  Yet the differences between the positions of the two candidates on such issues were so slight that that effort seemed more a pavlovian instinct than the pursuit of a promising explanation (What would members of the Catholic hierarchy have said about Hilary Clinton as an embodiment of Catholic moral values?) We are so used to discussing religious voting in terms of those issues that we assume they must somehow have been at the root of this voting pattern too.  But if differences over the “religious issues” don’t explain, what then has provoked the sudden appearance of this powerful Catholic Clinton bloc?

One explanation is that this was not a Catholic vote at all, but a blue collar one, and it just so happens that most of the white blue collar voters in the northeast and Midwest are Catholics. Yet was the Clinton primary vote a class vote? workers voting their class interests? Though the two Democratic party candidates would have objected heatedly, the differences between them on economic policies of interest to blue collar voters seemed, like those on “religious issues,” minor.  John Edwards might have argued that he had a stronger claim to be the champion of blue collar whites than either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama and he got knocked out in January.  Senator Clinton had diehard support among white women, but as some observers have suggested, it is not clear that she understood that Catholics or even blue collar whites were “her” voters before the primary campaign began.  They seemed to find her in New Hampshire before she found them and her “voice.”

There are other problems in thinking the Catholic vote was “really” just a blue collar vote. In some of the primary elections, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey for example, the percentage of the Catholic vote for Clinton actually exceeded her take of the blue collar or less well educated vote, and in other states, such as Pennsylvania, more refined statistics revealed that her Catholic vote topped her Protestant vote at every socioeconomic level.  

More important, this isn’t the 1930s or 1950s or even the 1970s. If Catholic voters in these primaries really were clearly poorer than Protestants and non believers, than we have to rethink one of the principal themes in American Catholic history and the mountain of evidence that seems to prove it: that white Catholics’ social and economic progress has been extraordinarily rapid over the last half century and has brought them abreast or even ahead of white Protestants.  Have Catholics really not slipped so easily into the American middle class and not yet “assimilated” as we all assumed?     

Perhaps the simplest answer to why Catholics voted so strongly for Hilary Clinton is the race of her African American opponent, Barack Obama. This would not surprise historians.  Irish Catholics’ embrace of “whiteness” -- identification as white and support of white supremacy -- has been a major theme in the writing of American history for more than two decades. So much so that, as one historian has said, it has become a “cliché.” This year’s political observers and participants have picked up on the theme: The Washington Post reported, for example, on the burning of green Obama signs on St. Patrick’s day in Scranton. Even Reverend Jeremiah Wright spoke darkly, if obliquely, about Irish American whiteness -- “Hear that O’Malley, O’Reilly?” -- in his speech at the National Press Club.

Yet historians have also documented a particularly fierce racist resistance to neighborhood integration by Catholics of all ethnic groups, not just the Irish, through the latter half of the twentieth century.  That resistance, often vile in its rhetoric and violent in its practice, appeared to be stronger than among Protestants and Jews, because Catholics seemed more strongly rooted in their urban communities than others.  So intense did such resistance become, David Leege has argued effectively, that race not “moral” or “social” issues appears to have been more important in creating the Catholic Reagan Democrats of the 1980s.

Some have argued that white Clinton voters, including white Catholics, feel threatened by African Americans today as they did then.  Matt Bai of the New York Times and others has suggested that Obama did best in primary states with large Black populations, where huge African American majorities carried him to victory, or in states with few Blacks, where whites had little fear of African Americans and thus of an African American presidential candidate.  In the remaining states, Black populations seemed just large enough to provoke white fears and votes for Clinton.   While this contention makes sense in theory, and may have applied to votes in some states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it did not fully explain the voting behavior of whites generally, and white Catholics in particular, during the Democratic primary. In Wisconsin white Catholics voted for Obama, but in Massachusetts they voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, even though the percentage of African Americans is the same in both states.  In Rhode Island, with an even smaller Black population than either Wisconsin or Massachusetts, white Catholics also gave Clinton heavy majorities.  Lest we think white Catholics in New England are simply more conservative than those in Wisconsin, a recent Democracy Corps study concluded just the opposite. 

As important, the issues that stoked Catholic and other whites’ hostility towards African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, busing, affirmative, action, neighborhood integration, welfare “reform,” and crime have had very little recent resonance. Few white Catholic neighborhoods even exist today, and those that do in the Northeast and Midwest, have suffered more recently from invasions by white brokers, bankers and advertising executives than from African Americans.  SS. Peter and Paul Church in the Irish Catholic, once anti busing bastion of South Boston, for example, is now a luxury condominium and Charlestown, Boston’s other old Irish Catholic stronghold, boasts a thriving youth lacrosse program.  One could argue that simply having a Black man at the top of the ticket is threat enough, but why then, in 2006, did a majority of white Catholics in Massachusetts vote for African American Deval Patrick for Governor, while white Protestants in the Bay State voted for Kerry Healey (born Murphy and with a degree from Trinity College, Dublin)? The difference between white Catholics and white Protestants in the Patrick – Healey election was nineteen percentage points.

The second major explanation for Clinton’s Catholic success versus Obama is Obama’s alleged elitism. During the primaries, numerous political commentators compared Obama to John Kerry, whose apparent timidity in the face of scurrilous attacks, fluency in French and taste for wind surfing marked him as a snotty wimp to some voters in the presidential campaign of 2004. Worse, perhaps, many political observers  compared Obama to the alleged father of recent Democratic snobbery, Adlai Stevenson.  Obama was thus seen in some quarters during the primary season, and still is seen among many, as distant, aloof, unconcerned, consumed by his own moral superiority, and not very manly to boot.

The senator from Illinois is puzzled by this and deservedly so, given his modest origins and current athletic skills (except in bowling), unmatched by almost any other presidential nominee in memory.  Stevenson, on the other hand, really was something of an American aristocrat and couldn’t have taken anyone one on one on the basketball court.

Yet as sweet and soaring as Obama’s rhetoric has seemed to many, maybe to even most, Democratic voters, there is something in his speeches and manner that seemed to strike the wrong chord for many Democrats, particularly many Catholic Democrats.  During the Democratic primary season, Catholics as diverse as the editor of Commonweal, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, and Ohio blue collar workers and their wives expressed some discomfort with Obama’s talk.  They wondered how realistic and tough he was:  “Doesn’t he sound a little naïve. He stands up there so optimistic… preaching hope and change.  It sounds great and everything, but come on.” Worse he conjured up images of old Protestant moral reformers.  Steinfels complained “there is something of the Protestant preacher [Baptist?] in Obama. Though it can inspire, there are times when my eyes glass over,” and a woman in Ohio said much the same thing: “I just don’t like the preaching that he’s doing.  He sounds like an old bible thumper to me.  I like being talked to. I don’t like being yelled at.”  

Historians over the last few decades have paid less attention to the question of anti-elitism than to racism in American history. Though the class divide between Obama’s and Clinton’s vote seems obviously relevant to the question of Obama’s elitism, the historic Catholic - Protestant conflict is pertinent too.  In the nineteenth century, politics in the northeast and middle west often pitted Catholic politicians, glorying in their plebeian origins, against Protestant patricians, confirmed in their righteousness. The secularization of reform and the growing importance of race changed but did not eliminate this fundamental divide.  For example, while most political scientists in the 1950s, and many historians since, assumed that Catholic votes against Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 reflected either the inevitable turn of upwardly mobile Catholics to the Republicans or the Catholic hard line on the Cold War, there was something in the way Stevenson talked and carried himself that was at work then too. When the then young political scientist Lawrence Fuchs went out to survey Boston Irish Catholic neighborhoods after Stevenson’s crushing defeats in 1956, he found that people there, rich and poor, seemed bothered as much by Stevenson’s effete preachiness as his policy positions. Robert and Jack Kennedy felt the same way about Stevenson, ridiculing him even as he worked for them as prissy and weak.  To their Catholic opponents in the Democratic Party, Adlai Stevenson and his “Amateur Democrats” thus seemed but another incarnation of these old elite moral reformers. John Kerry, war service or no, and practicing Catholic or not, seemed to be perceived in the same way, and fared very poorly among Catholics in his 2004 campaign for the presidency, even in his home state. After twenty years as a Massachusetts senator, Kerry barely won the state’s Catholic vote in 2004, 51% to 49%, though he won three-fifths of Massachusetts’ Protestant voters.   

Robert Frost once famously urged John Kennedy to be more Irish than Harvard, but Obama may not find a solution to white perceptions of his elitism in his African American heritage.  If emotional and stirring, the Protestant cadences of African American speech, for example, resonate with a kind of moral uplift that seems alien to some Catholics.  The moral earnestness in Martin Luther King’s talk sometimes made Bobby Kennedy cringe, for example.  Not just too academic and cold, then, Obama may also be too emotional and “hot,” for Catholics who appreciate gritty ironies and earthy skepticism.  Obama’s race may also complicate his ability to project an alternative masculinity to the charge of being the new effete Stevenson or Kerry.  Racially charged controversies and conflicts over proper styles of masculinity have been principal points of contention in American popular culture since Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stallone.  Arguments pitting Black athlete’s alleged expressive exuberance against a white ethnic athletic ideal of silent stoicism have been staples of sports talk radio for a generation. It is no coincidence that Senator Clinton happily named herself the new Rocky Balboa.   

In the end, Obama may suffer the double whammy of being an almost perfect embodiment of “top-bottom” coalition politics, the alliance between white reform elites and minorities that goes far back into American political history. In a unique way, because of his race and his manner and rhetoric, he seems representative of both the top and the bottom.

What then will all this mean for the Catholic vote in the general election? National polls conflict: Time magazine had McCain carrying Catholics by fourteen points early in the summer, but a Democracy Corps study from about the same time, suggested that Obama was doing “well enough” among white Catholics -- running seven percentage points ahead of Kerry.  A Pew poll in early August found Obama and McCain tied among white Catholics but a Quinnipiac poll a few weeks later reported that McCain led Obama by eight points among the same voters.  State polls have not clarified this much.  Obama has been running behind McCain among Catholics in Florida and Colorado, ahead in Wisconsin, ahead but barely in Minnesota, and about even in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but the state polls seem to change every day.

There may be another way to look at the Catholic vote in the current election cycle.  It may not help us predict any better, but it may be more revealing.  

Obama lost to Clinton by over thirteen points in eight states.  In all of those states, blue collar voters were critical to her victories.  Recent polls suggest that Obama is now also behind – in most cases far behind - McCain in five of those states: Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and West Virginia.  The Illinois senator is ahead in three of them: New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

New York was Clinton’s home state and the size of her victory there was understandable as is, given its New York’s longtime liberalism, the state’s current support for Obama in the general election. 

Rhode Island and Massachusetts may be more interesting.  Clinton had no home state advantage in them, but they, too, are among the most liberal states in the Union and by many measures -- except for an occasional Republican governor -- more Democratic than New York, indeed, perhaps the most Democratic states in the union, the bluest of the blue states.  In Rhode Island Democrats outnumber Republicans 60 to 15 in the state legislature’s house and 33 to 5 in the State Senate.  In Massachusetts, it is 141 to 19 in the House and 35 to 5 in the Senate.  Obama’s success here should also be expected.

The volatility of the swing from the primary vote in the two states to current polls is, nonetheless, very interesting: in Massachusetts there have been spreads of as much as thirty five points from Clinton’s victory margin in the primary to Obama’s recent lead in some polls, and in Rhode Island a few spreads have been even larger.   Such swings are especially impressive when matched against the other strong Clinton states, mainly in the southern border states, where McCain is thumping Obama about as badly as Clinton did.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts are the most Catholic states in the union. Indeed Catholics are a clear majority in Rhode Island and a near majority in Massachusetts. Catholics made up 43% of the voters for president in Massachusetts in 2004  and 57% of the voters in Rhode Island that year.  By contrast, voters in the five Clinton states where McCain is beating Obama are overwhelmingly Protestant.  No one, of course, believes that Massachusetts and Rhode Island are so strongly Democratic simply because they are so heavily Catholic, much less, so liberal for that reason.  Still consider this:  replace white Catholic voters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts with white evangelical Protestants (or Irish Catholics with Scotch Irish Protestants) and think what their politics would be like.

So what can we say about the Catholic vote in 2008?  Probably few predictions but some points.

First, Catholics remain a distinct people, not necessarily in all or even most elections, but in the right contexts. In the primaries they were distinctly different than Protestants and “secular” Democrats and critically important to Clinton’s victories in places like Massachusetts where high tech industries, high education levels and above average wealth seemed to create an electorate made for Senator Obama.  If they were distinct from other Democrats in their own states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, however, they also now differ from Clinton Democrats in the South. 

Second, what separates Catholics from other voters is not always their church’s doctrine.  Religious issues were not important in the primaries, and in the general election, if they were the only issues, McCain would be running much better in the two most Catholic states in the union than he is now. This does not mean doctrine does not matter in Catholic politics; it does mean that Catholic voters (like other voters) are not just the sum of their church’s dogma – they are also products of their history’s experiences.  Those histories vary, in some cases significantly – they are not the same for Catholics in Massachusetts and Rhode Island as they are for Catholics in New Jersey or Pennsylvania – and they are complicated.  For some reason, Catholics in Massachusetts and Rhode Island did not leave the Democratic Party, or at least not in the same numbers, as their co-religionists in the Middle Atlantic states did. Perhaps political observers need to start considering not why so many Catholics have left the Democratic Party, but why many, in some cases, very many, have stayed in it. After all, the Al Smith election was a long time ago.

Finally, among the most important historical legacies for America’s white Catholics are racial conflict and battles with reforming elites.  These two experiences also vary significantly among Catholics by region or state, but they are also more or less present among them everywhere in the nation.  That racism pushed some white Catholics to Clinton in the primaries and now is leading others to McCain is undoubtedly true.  At the Pew Forum’s Biannual Faith Angle Conference in May, William Galston suggested “We can’t rule out the possibility that older Catholics are simply less comfortable with the idea and the possibility of an African American President than are older Protestants.”

Yet Galston worried about this explanation, “Having said that I can’t quite tell a story that convinces me as to why that should be the case.” With Catholic neighborhoods washed away and tangible racial “threats” to them like busing and housing integration reduced in any case, it is hard to see the persistence of any clear differences between white Catholics and white Protestants on this issue now. It has never been clear that white Catholics had any greater commitment to the ideology or ideal of white racial supremacy than white Protestants in the twentieth century.  Indeed, in the mid twentieth century, even as white Catholics in northern cities violently attacked blacks who attempted to find homes in their neighborhoods or even simply seats in their churches, Catholic Democratic politicians routinely backed Civil Rights legislation in Congress, hoping to reap the benefits of northern Black votes.  In 1937, for example, the anti-lynching bill introduced into Congress was known as the Gavagan bill, after the name of its sponsor, J. Joseph Gavagan of New York, proud member of the Knights of Columbus and a Democratic regular.  Angry Southern Democratic opponents of the bill railed against Gavagan in the House debates over the bill, accusing him of trying “to make Harlem safe for Tammany Hall.”           

Galston suspected that rather than race some variation on reform versus the regulars was really at the heart of the differences between Catholics and others in the Democratic primaries. Clinton’s primary strengths and McCain’s surprising viability also seem to suggest that conflicts between reform elites and “regular guy” regulars may be at least as important as race in recent Catholic voting. Suspicion of elites is about economic class but not entirely; it is also about historic religious and ethnic resentments. It thus can be about policy, issues and programs, but it can also be about the way people talk, their sense of humor, even gestures – the distinction as that woman in Ohio said between talking with or for and talking at.  Barack Obama still needs to figure out how Hilary Clinton morphed from being a hectoring school marm’ to Rocky Balboa against him in the primaries, and how the McCain campaign, more recently, has so successfully transformed him, even if it was only for a few weeks, into a Hollywood prima donna, girlish, pretentious and self absorbed.  This is not just his problem.  It has been a Democratic problem since Stevenson and cost the party dearly in elections in 1988 and 2004. But it is his problem now. Such anti-elitism is also not a specifically Catholic attitude, but Catholics, as noted, have long histories of battles between outside “goo-goo” reformers and inside resisting, tough guy, heroes.  More important, white Catholics are strategically located. They form powerful blocs in states Obama needs and can win; those white Protestants who may be just as suspicious of reform elites are far more numerous in states where Obama has no chance.

Obama needs Catholics and seems to know it, part of the appeal, clearly of considering the scarcely known, first term, Catholic Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, or second term Catholic Governor Kathleen (Gilligan) Sibelius of Kansas as possible Vice Presidential candidates, before finally settling on Irish Catholic Senator Joseph, “ Joey,” Biden, once of Scranton, now of Delaware. 

Yet if Obama knows the problem does he know the answer or have the solution?  The Democratic Convention hinted that he might. 

The Clintons, of course, buoyed him at the Convention, but the choice of Biden seemed to immediately pay off. At the very beginning of his acceptance speech, Senator Biden channeled his mother (ne Finnegan of Scranton) to enunciate the core of the American Catholic egalitarian political credo: “No one is better than you. You are everyone's equal, and everyone is equal to you.”  (Chris Mathews nearly wept –  “I had a mother like that.”)

Yet Obama himself seemed different that week.  He may have learned that he does not have to mimic Catholic “regular guys” or others suspicious of elite reform – he doesn’t have to bowl.   He appears to have learned that he needs only to be able to speak plainly and directly to them, and perhaps even more important, to be strong, tough, unafraid, without being arrogant. (He also told ESPN earlier in the week that he is a White Sox, not a Cubs fan, heartfelt for a Chicago Southsider probably, but also a sound choice of regular guy grittiness over effete enthusiasm.)

Nevertheless, it is still early, and if white Catholics still seem as inscrutable to Barack Obama and his campaign in November as they did to him as well as Chris Mathews in February, then ….