Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

6.10.2013

Is Everyone Lining Up to Challenge Hillary Clinton Catholic?

Imagine this: It's February 10, 2016 and there is a double-header debate with the Democratic candidates going first on MSNBC and the Republicans following on Fox News and all but one of the candidates on both stages has ashes on their foreheads...

There are only about 1,200 days left before Election 2016. Although far too early for anyone to declare yet, some have expressed interest or are thought to be sure to enter the next presidential race. Among those who are considered potential candidates there seems to be an unprecedented number of self-identified Catholics. Perhaps the biggest name who is not Catholic is former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton (she self-identifies as Methodist and currently has poll numbers that are the strongest in the field). If she runs, she may have to face a few Catholics in the Democratic primaries (e.g., V.P. Joe Biden, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Gov. Martin O'Malley) and if successful then face one of many Catholic Republican opponents in the general election (e.g., former Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Gov. Bobby Jindal. Although Rubio more regularly attends a Baptist church he is still self-identifies as Catholic. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has also said he has not ruled out running again).

Catholics, at about 24% of the population, are already technically "over-represented" in elected and appointed government. Some 27% of the Senate and 31% of the House of Representatives is made up of self-identified Catholics. The Vice President and Speaker of the House self-identify as Catholic as does a super-majority of the Supreme Court (six of nine justices).

Although Hillary has received the most attention as the potential first female president, there are a handful of female Catholic candidates who may test the presidential primaries or be in the running for a V.P. spot (...overall 10% of the Senate is made up of Catholic women with three Republicans and seven Democrats. Female Catholic governors are less numerous). For example, on the Republican side Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Susana Martinez may be in the mix. On the Democratic side the same might be said about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Other Catholic candidates may emerge from the House (...or even outside of government. I don't think there is an electable cabinet secretary in the current administration other than John Kerry who would unlikely give a Nixon-like second go at it). It is also the case that beyond Hillary there are other non-Catholics who will undoubtedly be in the running. On the Republican side this list may eventually include the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul, former Sec. of State Condi Rice, or Gov. Rick Perry. On the Democratic side the same might be said for Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or perhaps Newark Mayor Cory Booker (...if he is able to win a Senate seat in New Jersey).

Recent history indicates that being a self-identified Catholic candidate does not have much of a measurable effect on one's appeal with Catholic voters. In 2004, John Kerry split the vote of U.S. Catholics with George W. Bush. In 2012, Catholic Republicans chose Mitt Romney over two other Catholic Republicans in the primaries. Also remember that Hillary already has a history of some success among Catholic Democratic voters from the 2008 primaries.

With at least a few Catholics likely to be in the 2016 field I wonder if we might expect some revival of discussions about the poor and poverty in the next election cycle? Pope Francis has made care for the poor and vulnerable one of the primary aims of his papacy. It is also the case that CARA's national polls consistently find that Catholics say helping those in need is the most important thing to their sense of what it means to be Catholic (see pg. 105). Will Catholic candidates pick up some of these themes? Or in 2016 will we hear more comments similar to what President Obama said at a May 17 campaign event?: "The middle class will always be my number one focus. Period." Seems a bit difficult to reconcile this with the reality of 46 million people living in poverty, more than 47 million relying on the government's supplemental nutrition assistance program or "food stamps," and 11.7 million people out of a job and looking for work. It is also the case that this statement does not represent an isolated incident.  


The figure above summarizes how each president (from JFK on) has talked about social class in their official communications (from written documents to speeches) as maintained by the American Presidency Project Document Archive. I searched for communications referencing keywords related to social class (e.g., the poor, working class, middle class, middle income, wealthy, the rich...). These were counted for each time a targeted word or phrase appeared in a speech or document. These were then aggregated into total counts of communications with at least once reference to the poor, middle class, or wealthy. These three counts for each president were then divided by the total of his communications which included any class-based references (...providing for fair comparison given variability in time as president and the number of communications made). The figure above shows that President Obama has really struggled to talk about the poor relative to those in other class segments (only 20% of his class-based communications). By comparison, President Johnson devoted 84% of his communications referencing class to the poor.

I am certainly not the only person to notice President Obama's rhetorical devotion to the "middle class." Steve Rendall, Senior Analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has noted that "President Obama generally avoids talking about the poor and strangely sometimes refers to the poor as 'those struggling into the middle class.'" Former New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert, says "Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word ‘poor.’" Politico's Byron Tau offers some context and argues that "Third Way Democrats like Bill Clinton consciously moved away from Lyndon Johnson-style language on poverty based on the belief that it would cost them votes — and instead chose to focus their rhetoric (and many of their policies) on the middle class." And to be fair President Obama is certainly not alone in failing to talk about the poor (e.g., Gov. Romney infamously spoke about the poor in a way that likely lost him votes). Democrats and Republicans in Congress have also recently fallen deeply in love with the middle class and seemingly forgotten those "below the middle." It seems like D.C. is awash in middle class fever.

It is also the case that one could argue that it doesn't really matter that President Obama has made more references to the middle class than any president in history (...just recently passing President Clinton's totals for both of his terms). What is perhaps more important is what he has done for the poor (e.g., expanding access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act). This context is very important. Candidates and politicians simply talking about the poor and doing nothing about poverty is even more problematic. But at the same time I don't think there is anything positive in making the poor and the issue of poverty less visible than it already is. The poor do not make big campaign contributions nor do they have armies of PACs or lobbyists trying to influence the election or policy making process. It also may be emerging as a dangerous electoral strategy in post-Great Recession America. Many politicians just assume that "most Americans think they are middle class." They don't anymore. As shown in the figure below more U.S. adult Catholics self-identify as "working class"/"lower class" than "middle class." Any candidate or party that fails to speak to and for this group risks losing them to an opponent who will talk about poverty, hunger, and unemployment. It just so happens no one has taken this flank yet. I expect some will in 2014 and 2016. If Catholics in the race have paid even a bit of attention to what Pope Francis has been saying they'll have plenty of material to draw upon.


I agree with Byron Tau that the primary reason you hear President Obama speak so much about the middle class is because of the "third way" shift that led political parties and candidates (here and in Europe) who traditionally spoke a lot about the poor and poverty to do less of this in pursuit of some perceived electoral gain (...as tested by surveys and focus groups and then packaged by media consultants).

At its current rate of use I think "middle class" rhetoric may have already jumped the shark. We may look back and say this happened right about when the White House announced its "Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tours." I hope the 2016 campaign has a new sound to it. A "branding" that includes the poor. If not what's next? The Middle Class Environmental Protection Agency? No Middle Class Child Left Behind? The Middle Class Aeronautics and Space Administration? Centers for Middle Class Disease Control and Prevention?

Photos above courtesy of Randy Bane, Bon Jagendorf, Gage Skidmore (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), azipaybarah, Center for American Progress, and mdfriendofhillary from Flickr Commons.

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