Hillary retiring? Obama rising? Ask the nation's Catholics
The Catholic swing vote will determine this year's Democratic primary and may break for Illinois Senator Barack Obama in Texas and Ohio on March 4, according to pollsters, political scientists, and Catholic priests who have tracked Catholic turnout. While early in the campaign Senator Hillary Cliton could rely on substantial support among Catholic voters—she enjoyed a two-to-one margin over her opponent in states such as California and New Jersey—Obama has in recent weeks trimmed back that margin.
"It's true that Clinton has done better than Obama with the Catholic vote to date," said Steve Krueger, a steering committee member of the organization Catholic Democrats. "Obama has continually improved . .. and has cut the deficit in half."
Clinton did well with Hispanic Catholics in states such as California, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as working class Catholics in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Obama, however, has made inroads with the latter group of Democratic voters, as evidenced by his recent win in Wisconsin, according to Krueger.
"Catholics are finally beginning to switch," said Father Tom Reese, S.J., a senior research fellow at Georgetown University.
"Ohio is going to be key," he added. "Those are . . . real working class Catholics, and if they vote for Obama then I think it's going to be all over for Hillary."
One factor contributing to Obama's recent momentum amongt Catholic voters may be the fact that Catholicshave had time to grow familiar with his Protestant-style of oration. "It may have taken Catholics a lot longer to warm up to Obama," Reese said. "It's not the style of preaching most of them hear in church . . . and maybe Catholics are slower to change their loyalties."
Other factors may include age, income, region, and race. Clinton has done significantly better among older, poorer Catholics on the coasts, as well as among Hispanics. In Texas, where U.S. Census Bureau estimates place Hispanics at approximately one third of the population, Clinton enjoys a much larger lead among Hispanic Catholics, according to Reese.
"Obama's got to do a lot of work convincing the Hispanics that he's their candidate and with working class Catholics. If he can swing those two groups then the election is in the bag," Reese said.
Like other trackers of U.S. voting patterns, Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, has little doubt about the important role Catholics will play in the 2008 election. "The Catholic vote will determine the nominee of the Democratic Party in this election," he said.
Experts are quick to point out, however, that the distinguishing characteristics of the Catholic swing vote from the general population are subtle, at best, and swing vote Catholics are not one-issue voters on moral problems such as abortion. A further complication is the growing importance of the nation's economic woes in voter decisionmaking, as the country now seems tottering on the brink of recession.
"Catholics are weighing a lot of local issues," said Mathew Schmalz, religious studies professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Schmalz, like other voting analysts, noted how well Clinton has done with Hispanic Catholics in comparison with Obama, despite their almost indistinguishable stances on immigration.
The greatest factor distinguishing the two candidates right now may be momentum. Obama has won the last 10 primaries, many of them handily, and is now trending upward with Catholics.—Matt Bigelow