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Catholics were key element in coalition to elect Clinton.

President-elect Bill Clinton was at work last week putting together his administration, but before the November presidential election became history, NCR asked writer Jim Castelli, who has done extensive polling research over the years, to take one last look at the Catholic vote and glean from it meaning and potential trends.

WASHINGTON -- Catholics were a key element in the coalition that elected Bill Clinton president.

In terms of absolute percentage of the electorate, Clinton did not do as well as Michael Dukakis did in 1988, because Ross Perot attracted 20 percent of the total Catholic vote. But Clinton had a plurality among Catholics, with 44 percent, compared to 35 percent for President Bush, according to Voter Research & Surveys, which conducted exit polls for the TV networks.

VRS collected data by religion in 29 states. Clinton won among Catholics in 19 of those states, Bush in 10. Perot did not win among Catholics in any state, but he finished second in Oregon with 29 percent of the vote, compared to 26 percent for Bush.

Bush emphasized opposition to abortion, support for vouchers for Catholic schools and support for "family values" in his quest for Catholic votes. Clinton emphasized the economy, health care and education, and the economy proved the decisive issue.

Clinton also emphasized his own ties to Catholics and the Catholic church. He attended the Jesuit-run Georgetown University and will be the first graduate of a Catholic college to become president.

On several occasions -- including a major speech about values delivered at the University of Notre Dame in September -- Clinton identified himself with the U.S. bishops' views in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy. He also quoted frequently from the bishops' statement "Putting Children and Families First."

Clinton was helped indirectly by the fact that, for the first time since the Supreme Court legalized most abortions, in 1973, there was no public debate among the bishops about the presidential candidates' positions on abortion.

The VRS exit poll found that 30 percent of Catholics, 30 percent of Protestants and 34 percent of all voters said abortion should be legal in all cases; 29 percent, 31 percent and 30 percent, respectively, said it should be legal in "most" cases.

Twenty-six percent each of Catholics and Protestants and 23 percent of all voters said abortion should be illegal in most cases; 10 percent, 9 percent and 9 percent, respectively, said it should be illegal in all cases.

Combining Clinton's and Perot's votes shows that 64 percent of American Catholics -- and 62 percent of all voters -- voted for pro-choice candidates.

The Catholic vote was not uniform across the country. Clinton won a plurality in the East (45 percent, with 34 percent for Bush and 21 percent for Perot), Midwest (44-35-21) and West (47-31-22), but Bush won a plurality in the South (41-42-17).

While Clinton won in the East, Bush led him by one point among Catholics in New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire and by nine points in New Jersey.

Bush beat Clinton by a solid margin among Catholics in most Southern states with small Catholic populations, but Clinton beat Bush among Catholics in Texas, in the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee and in heavily Catholic Louisiana.

Clinton beat Bush among Catholics in key Eastern and Midwestern industrial states - Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Clinton's lead among Catholics helped him carry New Mexico and come very close in Texas and Arizona. Clinton beat Bush handily among Catholics in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico.

Catholic turnout was high. Although official church records indicate that 22 percent of Americans are Catholic, polls based on self-identification generally find that between 25 and 28 percent of Americans say they are Catholic.

Twenty-seven percent of those who voted on Election Day were Catholic, including 53 percent in New Jersey, 50 percent in Connecticut, 49 percent in Massachusetts, 44 percent in New York, 42 percent in New Hampshire and Wisconsin and 41 percent in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

Ronald Reagan won the normally Democratic Catholic vote in 1980 and 1984. The Catholic vote was evenly split in 1988; a CBS-NEW York Times exit poll showed Bush beating Dukakis 52 to 47 percent, but an ABC-Washington Post exit poll showed Dukakis winning among Catholics 52 to 48 percent.

The most important issue for Catholics this year was jobs and the economy; the most important characteristic they wanted in a presidential candidate was the ability to bring about needed change. Catholics were less likely than Protestants to say that abortion or "family values" was one of the one or two issues that mattered most in deciding how they voted.

Among Catholics, 46 percent picked the economy as one of the most important issues, compared with 40 percent for Protestants. Only 9 percent of Catholics picked abortion, and 11 percent picked family values as one of the most important issues.


The figures for Protestants were 13 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Thirty-seven percent of Catholics, 32 percent of Protestants and 36 percent of all Americans said the quality they most wanted in a president this year was the ability to bring about needed change.

The day after the election, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, chairman of the bishops' pro-life committee, issued a statement urging Clinton and Vice President-elect Al Gore to show as much compassion for the unborn as they had for the unemployed and "others disenfranchised." O'Connor said politicians must "stop mouthing platitudes asserting that anyone can morally exercise the |choice' to kill an unborn baby."

That kind of statement would have been a major issue if it had come out before the election. But after the election, it was just an effort to rally dispirited pro-lifers.

Before the bishops issued their quadrennial political-responsibility statement asking Catholics to study a variety of issues and to vote their consciences. They sent Bush and Clinton detailed questionnaires on a broad array of issues, and both candidates filled them out.

The bishops launched a campaign to focus candidates' attention on issues -- including abortion -- affecting poor children. The only other bishops' conference statement aimed at the election came from the bishops' committee on international affairs, which asked candidates and voters not to neglect foreign policy.

Clinton was closer to the bishops' position on most international issues, but there was so little public interest in foreign policy this year that the statement had no effect.

Only 9 percent of Catholics and 8 percent of all voters said foreign policy was one of the one or two most important issues that decided their vote.

Bush had several well-publicized visits with prominent cardinals. Cardinal O'Connor greeted him warmly when Bush addressed the Knights of Columbus in August, and Bush met several times with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia.

The day before the election, Bush requested a meeting with Bevilacqua, which the willing cardinal immediately granted. The two men's cordial greeting was photographed for Election Day newspapers.

The president was also photographed with Washington, D.C., Cardinal James Hickey when he attended the annual Red Mass marking the opening of the Supreme Court. Bush has also been close to Boston Cardinal Bernard Law.

But those contacts arguably may not have done him much good. He led Clinton among Catholics in New York by one point, but New York Catholics have always been more Democratic than Catholics as a whole. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were two of Clinton's best states among Catholics.

Clinton effectively targeted Catholics by going into their neighborhoods in such areas as Philadelphia, Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit. He also made good use of his ties to Catholic politicians.

At the Democratic National Convention, New York Governor Mario Cuomo nominated Clinton, and Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski nominated Gore. Clinton also relied heavily on Catholic Sens. Tom Harkin and Harris Wofford and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, also a Catholic.

Clinton's vast network of friends included some prominent Catholics. He attended the American Legion Boys Nation and later Yale Law School with Fred Kammer, who later became a Jesuit priest and, this October, president of Catholic Charities USA. Clinton sent Kammer a letter congratulating him on his appointment.

Clinton discussed the Catholic influence on him in an interview with Pat Zapor of Catholic News Service 10 days before the election:

"From my Southern Baptist heritage, I have a deep belief that the First Amendment separation between church and state is what guarantees the religious freedom of all people. That's something that's really deeply ingrained in the history of the Baptist Church in America, going back to its founding.

"But the Catholic influence on me, frankly, I think is manifested in two ways. First of all, a real sense that we are morally obliged to try to live out our religious convictions in the world, that our obligation to social mission is connected to religious life. And I believe that.

"That I got out of my Catholic training more than from the Baptist church, which is much more rooted in the notion that salvation is a matter of personal relationship between an individual and God and carries with it no necessary burden to go out into the world and do things.

"And the other thing that I got out of my Catholic tradition is real respect for the obligation to develop one's mind, that religious convictions invoke more than emotions, that there is an intellectual vigor, that if you have a mind you have an obligation to develop it, to learn to think and to know things and then to act on those things more powerfully because you know more and because you can think better. That's something the Jesuits did for me as much as anything else."
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Author:Castelli, Jim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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