The Catholic vote is very much in play in the Republican presidential primaries. And hardly anyone seems to get that, says Time magazine reporter Amy Sullivan.
She notes that “Catholics make up about a quarter of the GOP primary electorate” but only Rick Santorum, himself Catholic, has actively tried to court Catholic voters.
Sullivan states: “[I]f you’re a purist conservative Catholic, Santorum is your man. His credentials on the social issues are beyond dispute.” But she notes that he is only at 1%, suggesting that such purist Catholics are not that large in number.
I’m sure that Santorum’s campaign is also wondering why they aren’t closer to 25% support given the number of Catholic voters in the Republican Party.
But I don’t think the answer is a total mystery. Catholic Republicans have been voting for non-Catholic candidates for decades. Many pro-life and pro-family Catholics simply want the strongest candidate on these issues who they deem have a good chance of winning the nomination. If that man is Catholic, all the better. So far, many pro-life Catholics have doubts that Rick Santorum can win the nomination. (Santorum fans have certainly hoped that he could duplicate a surprise performance like Huckabee in 2008, but so far that hasn’t happened.)
In fact, when the topic of Catholicism is brought up in public debate, it usually is a scandal for pro-life Catholics. Catholic Republicans have long been embarrassed by the large number of high-profile Catholic Democrats who have caused scandal by supporting abortion and/or same-sex marriage. The roster is long: Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Andrew Cuomo, and Joe Biden. To pro-life Catholics, voting for a candidate who shares your faith tradition is not as important as voting for a candidate who recognizes the right to life and the importance of marriage. Thus, the Democratic Party nominated Catholic John Kerry, but the Methodist George W. Bush was able to win the Catholic vote because he emphasized the pro-life and pro-family issues. In 2008 McCain did not and lost.
In fact, Sullivan notes that the evangelical language of George W. Bush didn’t push Catholic Republicans away. In fact, it might make them open to supporting Rick Perry. Looking across the field, Sullivan says Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping on abortion worries Catholic pro-lifers and Herman Cain’s baffling answers could show that he’s not up to the challenge of defending and debating the right to life.
“For many conservative Catholics, that leaves Rick Perry as their default candidate of choice,” says Sullivan. Making the Catholic case for Perry, Sullivan said that for pro-life Catholics, Perry’s support for the death penalty isn’t a deal breaker and many Catholics are closer to Rick Perry’s views on immigration than evangelical voters.
“If Rick Perry is looking to turn around his campaign, he might want to focus less on hiring big-name GOP consultants and more on finding some Catholic outreach staffers in Iowa.”
The Republican Party needs to realize that the Catholic vote is important not just in the general election, but also in the primaries. The candidate who best understands that best might be the one nominated in Tampa next August.