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 Washington Notebook

October 13, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 37

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


If, for example, Kerry chooses to address faith issues in a major speech he risks "annoying the practicing Catholics. If Kerry indirectly helps energize them, these two or three percent could come out [to the polls] and punish him."

- George J. Marlin


A conservative look at the Catholic vote

By Joe Feuerherd

John F. Kerry has been good to George J. Marlin.

The candidacy of the first Catholic major party presidential candidate in 44 years has made Marlin, author of The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact (St. Augustine's Press, 2004), a hot property.

Talk radio can't get enough of him and Fox News' Neil Cavuto relies on Marlin to dissect the Catholic vote. On Oct. 12 he sparred with Jesuit Fr. Leo O'Donovan, former president of Georgetown University, on CNBC's Capital Report.

Marlin's thesis: This presidential election may well be won or lost in the key rust belt swing state precincts of Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where "practicing Catholics" are disproportionately represented. And culture -- for which voters' views of abortion and gay marriage are leading indicators -- could very well end up being the decisive issue.

"In a close election," Marlin told NCR, "votes along the margins matter." For example, he continued, if a relatively small number of voters ("one or two or three percent") in Wisconsin get energized by George W. Bush's Catholic-friendly rhetoric and policies, it could put the Badger State in the president's column. Bush lost Wisconsin to Al Gore by a quarter of one percent in 2000.

Marlin is, quite literally, a Conservative with a capital C. In 1993, as the Conservative Party candidate for mayor of New York, he finished third to the Republican candidate, Rudy Giuliani, and the incumbent, Democrat David Dinkins. But the 6'6" Greenpoint, Brooklyn, native had some fun, pointing out during a televised interview that the man now known as "America's Mayor" was not, as purported, a product of the gritty streets of blue collar Brooklyn or Queens, but a native of genteel Garden City, one of Long Island's more comfortable suburbs.


A decade later, post-Sept. 11, it's difficult to recall that Giuliani was once just another politician -- that on Sept. 10, 2001 his term-limit mandated departure from Gracie Mansion was anticipated by New Yorkers of all political persuasions.

Back in 1993, the now famously brave Giuliani feared Marlin, wouldn't debate him or appear on the same platform. Given Marlin's acerbic tongue, one could hardly blame him.

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"If you are tired of liberal crackpots, join me in the crusade to take back our city," Marlin, the son and grandson of New York cops, told the Conservative faithful that year. "We must love God, family, neighborhood and country. Only by revitalizing these values can we revitalize our government and economy. "

Marlin came young to the conservative cause. As a 12-year-old he stood on Brooklyn street corners and handed out "Buckley for Mayor" pamphlets. (That was the election where National Review publisher William F. Buckley, when asked what his first action would be if elected, declared that he would demand a recount.)

New York Conservatives keep their good humor because it's about "Fighting the Good Fight" (the title of Marlin's 2002 history of the party in the state) and not, at least not frequently, about actually winning.

Today, Marlin wears the well-tailored suits of the bank chairman that he is and puffs a more-than-occasional Macanudo cigar. But he hasn't forgotten where he came from -- and the contested neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wilkes Barre, Macomb County, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio aren't, in his view, all that different from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 1965.

It was these voters, recalled Marlin, who cost Gerald Ford the presidency in 1976. In those days, presidential campaigns didn't begin in earnest until Labor Day, at which point Ford found himself trailing Jimmy Carter badly in the polls.

Writes Marlin: "President Ford promised Catholics 'new tax breaks for parents sending their children to parochial schools,' and by early October opinion polls revealed that this strategy was working and thanks to the shifting of the Catholic vote, the gap between Carter and Ford was closing."

But then Ford, facing off in a debate against Carter, declared that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and [there] never will be under a Ford Administration." One Ford aide, recalled Marlin, " 'kept thinking of the Alliance of Poles Hall in Cleveland and how they might be throwing beer bottles at the screen by then.' "

Carter won a landslide among Catholic voters, getting 57 percent in an election where nationally he won just 50 percent of the vote.

In 2000, says Marlin, Bush got 57 percent of the "practicing Catholic" vote, while Gore secured a similar margin among "cafeteria Catholics" -- those who attend Mass less frequently or don't place a high value on the cultural issues.

So in a country where approximately 50 percent of registered voters don't go to the polls, Bush strategists, quite naturally, are working to maximize the "practicing Catholic" vote. And that's where culture is key, says Marlin. Like most Americans, says Marlin, "Catholics see the war on terrorism as the number one issue." But, he continues, "There are significant subsets who see moral and cultural issues" as paramount.

The Bush campaign gets it, says Marlin, and through its 53,000 "Catholic Outreach" team leaders and phone banks is busily identifying and targeting these voters. "You've got to turn out your hardcore voters," says Marlin.

So what's Kerry to do?

"Up until the last [Oct. 8] debate," said Marlin, "Kerry studiously avoided speaking out as a Catholic." Responding to a question about abortion, Kerry said that he could not "take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't" agree.

Kerry's response may not rank up there with Gerald Ford's rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe. But, says Marlin, it won't sell with pro-life blue-collar voters in key swing states.

Given his position on abortion and other social issues, says Marlin, Kerry's left with few good options as he tries to get a share of the "practicing Catholic" vote. If, for example, Kerry chooses to address faith issues in a major speech (as the candidate told The New York Times recently that he plans to) he risks "annoying the practicing Catholics," says Marlin. "If Kerry indirectly helps energize them, these two or three percent could come out [to the polls] and punish him."

Kerry's best bet, though still a "Hail Mary" strategy says Marlin, is to take away some of the "practicing Catholic" vote from Bush by appealing to their economic concerns and labor union allegiances. "It's a plausible strategy, but I don't think it's going to make a difference."

Some may see Marlin's analysis as flawed or blurred by conservative ideology. Perhaps the distinction between "practicing Catholics" and "cafeteria Catholics" is overdrawn. For example, when questioned by pollsters, a lot of people say they go to church every week when, in fact, they don't.

What's not at issue, however, is that Marlin's thesis is shared by Bush strategists. They see the "faithful Catholic" vote as potentially key in this election and are pulling out all the stops to get those voters to the polls. At the same time, Catholics are a source of more than a little concern to Kerry operatives, who hope that misgivings about Iraq and concerns about the economy will prove decisive even along the margins.

This year, it is clear, the Catholic vote matters.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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