Electing the President 2016: Political Soul-Searching

Author: Robert Schmuhl

Editor’s note: Head of state, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, guardian of the economy – Americans are fixing to elect another president, so we asked Notre Dame’s in-house pundit to put the moment, the issues, the candidates and the choices in context and perspective. Bob Schmuhl’s commentary on American politics and journalism frequently appears in major print and broadcast outlets in the U.S. and abroad. His exclusive observations on the 2016 presidential election will run on magazine.nd.edu every two weeks.

Did Joe Biden start a trend?

Since Biden’s election as the first Catholic vice president eight years ago, the Democratic and Republican parties in 2012 and this year have nominated running mates born and raised as Catholics in Irish American households.

Dem Gop Jim Larkin

Besides Biden, who’s in the homestretch of his second term as Barack Obama’s No. 2, Paul Ryan, a former altar boy and current Speaker of the House, shared the GOP ticket with Mitt Romney in 2012.

Now, four years later, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who spent nearly a year in Honduras helping Jesuit missionaries, is running with Hillary Clinton on the Democratic slate, while Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, another former altar boy, provides Republican nominee Donald Trump with governmental experience as the GOP running mate.

Though Biden, Ryan and Kaine continue as Mass-attending churchgoers, Pence in young adulthood shifted both political allegiances — from lionizing John Kennedy and the Democratic Party to following Ronald Reagan and Republicans — as well as religious affiliations. For a time, he even described himself as “a born-again evangelical Catholic.” Today it’s more accurate to call him an evangelical Christian.

Be that as it may, it’s remarkable that Biden, Ryan, Kaine and Pence all share similar backgrounds in faith, and they are all on the record articulating the meaning of their spiritual upbringing to the evolution of their political careers. Indeed, Kaine and Pence each spoke movingly about the importance of religion to each of them during their recent debate.

Having the Catholic tradition so prominent on recent national tickets is interesting in itself, but it’s also a subtle acknowledgment of the importance of the Catholic vote in American politics. According to electoral surveys, Catholics make up approximately one quarter of all U.S. voters.

Responses tabulated for media exit polls since 1972 show that Catholics have supported Democratic presidential tickets six times (Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore in 2000 and Obama in 2008 and 2012) and the Republicans in five elections (Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2004). With Catholic voting shifting back and forth between the major parties in recent years, what can we expect in 2016?

During a recent lecture at Notre Dame, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke for many Catholics and other Americans when he delineated the dilemma confronting a sizable number of voters this year, as they mull whether to vote for Trump or Clinton.

“Only God knows the human heart,” Archbishop Chaput said, “so I presume that both major candidates for the White House this year intend well and have a reasonable level of personal decency behind their public images.

“But I also believe that each candidate is very bad news for our country, though in different ways. One candidate, in the view of a lot of people, is a belligerent demagogue with an impulse control problem. And the other, also in the view of a lot of people, is a criminal liar, uniquely rich in stale ideas and bad priorities.”

Valid or not in the specificity of these characterizations, Chaput is correct to assume that Trump or Clinton will be the next White House occupant. At this point in the campaign, every indication is that Clinton will do substantially better than her husband or Obama did in winning the backing of Catholic voters.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll reported Catholic support for Clinton stood at 61 percent to 34 percent for Trump. The 27 percent difference for Catholics is stunning compared to the 2 percent margin (50 to 48) that separated Obama and Romney in 2012. Should the current advantage hold up through Election Day, it would far surpass the 16-point spread Bill Clinton enjoyed over Bob Dole in 1996.

Why are Catholics shunning Trump in such dramatic numbers? Though pro-life (unlike Clinton), the New York developer and celebrity is thrice married and didn’t conduct himself as a paragon of virtue in his private life during earlier decades when the tabloid media obsessively covered his questionable antics.

In this campaign, too, he’s been outspoken in his criticism of Pope Francis, who said — in reference to Trump’s proposal of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. — “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

The pontiff’s criticism gave voice to concerns of many American Catholics who know from personal or familial experience the metaphorical walls faced by countless immigrants.

Congenitally incapable of turning the other cheek, Trump quickly responded: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” Later, dismissing what the pope said in impolitic terms, he remarked: “Now it’s probably going to be all over the world. Who the hell cares? OK? I don’t care.”

Trump’s problem with Catholics — from the top down — is potentially significant because it divides the coalition of evangelical Christians and Catholics, particularly more conservative ones, that’s existed since the 1970s. It’s possible that what we’re seeing is a single election phenomenon based on the outsized personality of the GOP nominee, but any rupture of the evangelical/Catholic alliance should worry Republicans for 2020 and beyond.

No matter the outcome on November 8, the Catholic dimension of the candidates and voters deserves close and continuing scrutiny. As the geography and demography of American politics change, Catholic involvement will play a key role in influencing the trajectory of both major parties.

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. This fall he’s teaching a class on American political culture and the 2016 election.

Illustration by Jim Larkin