“Up for grabs”: a Democratic strategist on how to win the Catholic vote

Here’s another take on this election from Jim Arkedis of the Progressive Policy Institute.  It offers a window into how Democrats  are thinking about Catholics:

Catholics are up for grabs this year. A Gallup poll from April has President Obama and Mitt Romney tied among Catholics, 46 percent each. At nearly 20 percent of the population, Catholics have roughly mirrored the popular votein the last eight elections. They voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, but switched to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, Catholics, like the country, went under 50 percent for George W. Bush; but against John Kerry,Bush took 52 percent; by 2008, they’d flipped to Barack Obama, 54-45.

It’s unclear whether the Obama campaign will specifically organize Catholic supporters or try to persuade moderate ones. This Monday, the campaign hired Michael Wear as its faith vote director. That’s an excellent first step, and Wear’s experience organizing faith-based outreach for Obama in 2008 and in the White House indicates that the Obama campaign is taking people who make their faith a priority seriously. Wear might have too much on his plate, however — the campaign Web site groups Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Southern Baptists and Muslims under a one-size-fits-all “Voters of Faith” outreach program. It’s a mistake to treat the Catholic vote just like the rest.

Perhaps no presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy has been able to unite this disparate flock. But President Obama’s task isn’t that tough. The key to winning the Catholic vote is to understand its composition — litmus-test abortion voters, moderates, women and Hispanics — and to aim to carry persuadable Catholics by healthy margins in crucial swing states. Failure to deliver them could cost the president re-election.

Recent events suggest that these vast groups of Catholic voters (again: women, moderates, Latinos) are now more open to a progressive faith-based message than they have been perhaps since Kennedy-Nixon. The Obama campaign should tread lightly, however, and resist any poll-driven urge to drive a wedge between the faithful and official church positions on women’s issues or same-sex marriage. Divisive messaging probably won’t fly among most Catholics, who may grumble about their religious leaders’ positions, but don’t seek overt separation from them. I can’t say that there’s any scientific evidence to support this theory, but it comes from my observations over a lifetime in the Catholic community.

The Obama campaign’s message should unequivocally stand with the church and Jesus Christ’s humble message of social justice, equality and inclusion. These are distinctly Catholic themes that draw sharp contrasts for Catholics who have tired of a Republican Party with less room for those who are not straight, male, white and self-sufficient…

…What would a Catholic voter outreach program look like? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t exactly let political operatives walk in the front door and set up shop, but there are several progressive Catholic organizations — Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance, Catholic Democrats — that the campaign could engage first to build a volunteer corps. Within each district office, the campaign could identify Catholic precinct captains to recruit Catholic door-knockers to reach out to their friends from church. Then there’s advertising. It would be more difficult to construct this architecture from scratch, but however it’s done, it’s a must: a positive social justice message could be what tips the balance toward re-election for the president.

As a moderate Democrat and a Catholic, I disagree with my party when I say that I believe life begins at conception or that abortions should be performed only in cases of rape, incest or when a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life. In another era, those beliefs might have made me a Republican target. But I’m a Democrat, in part, because of the party’s deep belief in social justice: We’re the ones who make equality and inclusion central to our very being; we stick up for the little guy; we don’t believe everyone should fend for themselves all the time. That’s what Jesus said, and that’s the society President Obama wants to build.

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