Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spring and Fall and the Catholic Vote in the Presidential Race

In response to my post charting the trends in the Catholic vote during the Democratic Presidential primaries, Steve Shiffrin argues that “[w]hat the Democratic primaries show is that Obama loses the Catholic vote to Clinton. That data shows little about how Obama would do with the Catholic vote against McCain.” I appreciate his kind response to my posting (it's nice to know that someone actually read it), and I acknowledge his forceful point.

Looking at the data alone, Steve is right — mostly. How Democratic primary voters allocate themselves among Democratic candidates would not ordinarily tell us much of anything about how those Democratic primary voters would respond to a later general election between one of those Democratic candidates and the Republican contender. Still, looking only at the data in this remarkable case, the lop-sided distribution of the numbers — showing Senator Obama losing the Catholic vote by margins that now exceed 40 points — and the persistence and stability of similar numbers from state to state do suggest something quite powerful and enduring is at work here. An empirical scholar seeing such a dramatic slope of the data in one direction would hypothesize that a significant variable (or set of variables) is at work, some powerful influence that may serve as an explanatory model.

While the data by themselves are only descriptive — showing, as Steve rightly says, only that Senator Barack Obama loses the Catholic vote to Senator Hillary Clinton — the insistent and more interesting question is what has caused these sizeable loses. What has influenced Catholic voters to turn away from Obama in such overwhelming numbers and will those significant factors translate into influences on voting trends in the different context of the fall election? On this question of influence, we move away from empirical analysis (absent a better set of well-measured variables and a better specified model with which to work than is available through exit polling results at present) and into the realm of interpretation and judgment. Here our opinions and impressions, which may be better or less informed, will play a substantial role in our evaluation of what is happening on the ground in the Democratic primaries — and why.

So I’d invite our readers to ask the following questions and answer them for yourselves, based on your own observations of the candidates, information about the campaign, and knowledge of the Catholic electorate (which of course is hardly monolithic, as Steve rightly says):

• What are the variables giving rise to Clinton’s huge victories over Obama among Catholic voters? Are Catholic voters powerfully attracted toward Clinton, meaning that these primary results reflect little aversion toward Obama (and thus tell us little about how these voters will respond in the general election should Clinton then drop out of the picture)? Or are Catholic primary voters strongly turned-off by Obama, finding him unpalatable as a candidate?

• If it is the latter, are these causes of alienation from Obama likely to persist into the fall election? Indeed, is it possible that additional factors relevant to this estrangement will emerge or be emphasized in the fall campaign, factors that were not fully explored in the Democratic primaries or on which there was little contrast between the Democratic candidates?

• And, finally, even if the Catholic margin against Obama’s candidacy is a direct rejection of him as a candidate for reasons that have continuing resonance in the general election, is Senator John McCain likely to fare better on those factors and become an acceptable (or at least less objectionable) alternative for these voters?

If the answers to these interpretive questions are unfavorable for Obama, to a greater or lesser degree, then the large margins of defeat for Obama among Catholic voters in the primary may well presage a dismal outcome for him in the November election (at least among Catholic voters, who usually side with the winner).

In my prior postings (here and here), I’ve offered my own tentative analysis, impressions, and speculations on some of these matters. I won’t repeat that here. Yes, I do agree that every prognostication in such a dynamic phenomenon as a political campaign is risky, and thus my attempts to extrapolate from the data into the future are fairly subject to debate and disagreement or dismissal. Still, if those in the Obama campaign believe his landslide losses among Catholic voters in the primaries carry no message for the fall election, I gotta tell ya — I think they are whistling past the graveyard.

Greg Sisk


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