« 'Frames,' 'Messaging' Overhyped? | Main | Three Strikes and You're Out? »

ISO White Catholics

White Catholics are a true swing voter group. They perfectly fit the crisp definition offered awhile ago by Gary Langer, ABC News polling director, in that their support can actually swing between Democratic and Republican candidates across different elections and that their weight in the electorate is large enough to make a change in their support politically important.

Here are the margins among white Catholic voters in the last five presidential elections:

1988: +14R
1992: +5D
1996: +7D
2000: +7R
2004: +13R

So they most certainly swing. And they are most certainly a large enough group (21 percent of voters in the 2004 election) for those swings to make a real difference. Thus, not only would it be precedented for white Catholics to swing back to the Democrats in the next election, but we can be sure such a swing would have genuine electoral significance. It would also, in all likelihood, be an indicator of more general success in reaching contestable voters, since many of the Democrats' problems with white Catholics are similar to their problems with other contestable voters.

This is by way of introducing a treasure trove of data on white Catholics that has recently been released by Democracy Corps. In their memo, "Reclaiming the White Catholic Vote", based on a late February survey of white Catholics, they provide the following useful framework for thinking about the white Catholic vote:

...White Catholics have not gone Republican. They are divided evenly on almost every important policy question and political indicator, and indeed, on their basic world views. They are split 50-50 on whether the country is headed in the right or wrong direction, on their vote for Congress, on whether we need more or less regulation, whether we need more community or more self-sufficiency, whether abortion should be legal or not and on whether the Catholic church should be more modern or traditional. They are divided evenly between those who attend church every week and those who are less observant. And finally, they are evenly divided between those with a college degree and those without – closely related to the distinct worldviews that leave white Catholics so evenly divided.

Indeed, white Catholic voters are considerably more Democratic than other white voters and more moderate on a whole range of issues, including tolerance on homosexuality and openness to stem cell research. They remain more Democratic in their identification than in their voting: Bush’s 13-point margin over Kerry among white Catholics was 10 points higher than the Republican advantage in partisanship – leaving a large bloc of voters available to the Democrats.

Indeed, that gap creates the main target audience for the Democrats: the Democratic defectors, the 10 percent of white Catholics who identify with the Democrats but did not vote for Kerry; and the post-Clinton defectors, the 14 percent who voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 but not for Kerry.

Some of the most interesting findings from the survey and analysis are displayed in a very nice accompanying color chartpack. They include:

1. Democrats have solid advantages among white Catholics on associations like "for the middle class" (+14 for the Democrats) and "putting the public interest first" (+13). But the Republicans have 22-23 point advantages on "can be trusted to keep America safe" and "respecting religious faith". And the GOP has a 33 point advantage among this group on "know what they stand for".

2. The top reason cited by white Catholics on why Kerry lost the 2004 election was "not clear on what he stood for" (48 percent selected this reason as one of the two top reasons Kerry lost, twice as many as selected "permissive on issues like abortion and gay marriage" as one of the reasons).

3. The top moral concern cited by white Catholics was "people not being personally responsible".

4. White catholics are actually much more tolerant of homosexuality as a way of life than white voters as a whole; on the other hand, they are more conservative on the abortion issue.

5. White catholics are more convinced than white voters as a whole that "America's security depends on building strong ties with other nations".

6. White catholics appear to view Democratic candidates for Congress more favorably if they are described as having traditionalist but tolerant positions on social issues--for example, not legalizing gay marriage, but supporting civil unions and against amending the constitution or trying to reduce the number of abortions, while keeping a woman's right to choose (the old Clinton "safe, legal and rare" position). White catholics also view Democratic candidates favorably who are described as favoring support for stem cell research.

7. The two approaches that net the biggest advantage for a hypothetical Democratic congressional candidate are fighting for the middle class and building a stronger national defense by increasing funding for our military and counter-terrorism programs.

These and other findings lead to the following set of recommendations in the DCorps memo, which strike me as eminently reasonable:

Highlight the Democrats as the middle class party, focused on work and personal responsibility. That remains a strong advantage for the Democrats and a very positive element of a prospective profile. There is very strong support for a Democratic candidate who rolls back tax cuts for the wealthy and deplores excessive CEO salaries, while underscoring advocacy for the middle class. Democratic defectors, in particular, are just as skeptical of corporations and supportive on economic issues.

Democrats need to reassure broadly on values. “Personal responsibility” is the most important value overall and for many of the Democratic defectors and a very important element in the Democrats being a middle-class party. Catholic voters, when they think of moral values, are looking for honesty and integrity, the Golden rule, and a commitment to family.

Catholic voters have emerged more pro- life, which is a factor in the recent losses and one of the blockages for Democrats, at least in the Midwest. But they are very responsive to a broad initiative to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions.

Critically, white Catholics should not be caricatured as traditional social conservatives, as among the Evangelical churches. They are fairly tolerant of America’s social diversity, including homosexuality. They are open to pro-choice Democrats who emphasize fewer abortions. And they firmly align with progressive developments and science, like stem cell research, even when opposed by the Church.

The dislodged Democrats are also distinctive on security issues and much less opposed to the Iraq war. White Catholics respond very positively to a Democrat who is strong on defense and the war on terrorism.

Easier to say than to do, of course. But an excellent place to start, nonetheless.