Do Democrats get Catholics?

CaseyPin 02 Kimberly Hefling and Eric Gorski of the Associated Press wrote a story about the Catholic vote in the upcoming Democratic primary in Pennsylvania that might be described as schizophrenic. On the one hand, their story noted the influence of religion in the lives of voters. On the other hand, their story failed to mention why the two Democratic presidential candidates are not seeking to accommodate those voters on hot-button social issues.

The story began promisingly enough:

Understanding Pennsylvania's rich Catholic tradition and responding to it is an article of faith for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama as the April 22 primary looms in the still unsettled and intense Democratic presidential race.

A bit further down in the story, the reporters mentioned the steps that the two remaining Democratic candidates have taken to woo Catholic voters:

Obama, unwilling to concede the Catholic vote, plans small round-table meetings and "listening sessions" with Catholic voters in Pennsylvania's urban and rural areas, as well as e-mails and phone banks targeting Catholics.

In a nod to the diverse concerns of Catholic voters, the meetings will focus on Obama's stands on the economy, jobs and health care, said former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, who has been reaching out to fellow Catholics on the campaign's behalf. One goal is to gauge how issues such as race and the inflammatory remarks of Obama spiritual mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, are playing with Catholics, Roemer said.

"We found Catholic voters aren't really a lot different in terms of many of their concerns than the average voter," Roemer said.

Clinton backers Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., last week wrote a letter to Pennsylvania Catholics emphasizing her plans on health care, mortgage foreclosures and fuel costs.

Clinton spokesman Mark Nevins said Catholics connect with Clinton's message and Pennsylvanians value her ties to Scranton, where her father was born and raised and she was christened at the Court Street Methodist Church.

Yes, the story shows that Catholic Democrats have diverse concerns. But it also shows that one of those concerns is abortion. Sen. Bob Casey, Sr. is quoted as saying that. Also, the reporters in a capsule summary of Catholic voters nationwide say the same:

In the 1960s, Catholics overwhelmingly supported John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic elected to the White House. In recent years, many have moved toward Republican candidates, drawn by the party's opposition to abortion ... President Bush, a Methodist who opposes abortion rights, won 52 percent of the Catholic vote against Kerry, the practicing Catholic, in 2004.

So why isn't Obama seeking to accommodate Catholic Democrats concerned about abortion? After all, the reporters note that among Pennsylvania Catholics he is trailing Clinton by 46 percentage points. A little accommodation could go a long way.

The reporters should have noted that it's not as if Obama needs to abandon support for abortion rights. In 2005, top Democratic strategists wrote a public memo urging Democratic candidates to change their approach on abortion, emphasizing the need to reduce the number of abortions.

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What's more, the reporters mention the exclusion of Casey's father at the 1992 Democratic convention, though not his public humiliation, such as the pin (see above photo) that pro-choice Democrats sold. This begs the question. Isn't a key part of the story missing: Democratic candidates can't fully reach out to religious voters because they have been cowed by liberal feminists, cultural liberals, and abortion industry leaders?

This is not some abstract question. My book quotes the late Casey and Roemer himself saying this. Amy Sullivan's The Party Faithful quotes one anonymous Democratic politician and Roemer saying the same.

Perhaps Gorski and Hefling made a perfectly understandable mistake. They assumed that because Democratic leaders reached out to pro-life Democratic voters in the 2006 election, they don't need to do so in 2008. But the assumption is invalid. Leaders of the party's congressional can handpick candidates to fit individual (i.e. pro-life) districts, while leaders of the party's presidential wing can't.

Despite overlooking the Democratic leadership angle, Hefling and Gorski explored the religious concerns of Pennsylvania Democrats well. Although the reporters quoted only seniors and college students, they gave readers a nuanced understanding of voters' religious concerns. Take this one:

Molitoris, who is from Plains near Scranton and is the student president at the University of Scranton, a Catholic Jesuit university, interned for Santorum's campaign two years ago. Like his Catholic parents, he says he's opposed to abortion, but he says he's more willing to consider a candidate who is not. He says he thinks Obama would best represent the United States on the world stage.

"I'm pro-life, but I don't want to look at just the pro-life issue alone to determine the quality of the candidate. I've taken more of, I guess, a holistic approach in looking at the whole entire package," Molitoris said.

If only the reporters had given readers a similarly intriguing, subtle story about Democratic leaders. The reporters would, then, have gotten religion.

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