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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

Catholic vote eyed for general election success

When conversation turns to religion and politics, it is often conservative evangelicals or Catholics deeply involved in “cultural issues” who draw all the attention. But it is another group entirely -- a small grouping of Catholics who lie somewhere in the middle -- who have been determining the outcome of presidential elections since 1972.

-- CNS

Sen. Hillary Clinton

Until the “Potomac primary” Feb. 12, it seemed that on the Democratic side of things, Sen. Hillary Clinton had found the key to attracting Catholics, with significant margins in nearly all the primary states except for Georgia and Missouri.

-- CNS

Sen. Barack Obama

But in Sen. Barack Obama’s sweep of the primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, her grip on the Catholic vote began to slip. Obama won the majority of Catholic votes in Virginia and received 45 percent of the Catholic vote to Clinton’s 48 percent in Maryland, according to a report in The Baltimore Sun. No figures were available for the District of Columbia.

The reason the Catholic vote is worth watching is that in general elections, Catholics have voted for every winner of the popular vote since 1972.

Among Catholics, said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, it is really only 5 to 10 percent who cast those important swing votes in general elections. The rest of the Catholic voters are fairly predictable, said Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert on the role of Catholics in the political realm.

One way to gauge how successful a candidate will be in drawing the Catholic vote in the general election is to see how he or she does in the primaries. Attracting Catholics could be a sign of electability.

Two of the states looming large on the horizon, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have significant Catholic populations. That once looked like a good omen for Clinton, but Obama’s recent success makes that advantage a little less clear.

There’s a cautionary note, however, in using Democratic primaries to project a general election. In the Super Tuesday primaries in 2004, Sen. John Kerry won 62 percent of the Catholic vote and ran 10 points better among Catholics than he did among all voters. In the general election, however, Kerry lost the Catholic vote to President George W. Bush, 52 percent to 47 percent.

-- NCR Staff

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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