John Gehring: Will Catholic Voters Make Joe Biden the Next President?

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a rally with members of a painters and construction union on May 7, 2019, in Henderson, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher)

When Joe Biden entered the presidential race last week, he instantly became the Democratic front-runner. He also faced legitimate questions about his age, physical contact with women and a record on racial and criminal-justice issues out of step with a party moving to the left.

But one element went largely unremarked: Biden’s potential ability to connect with Catholic voters.

In 2016, Donald Trump’s victories in states traditionally won by Democratic presidential candidates — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — were powered in large part by white Catholics. Nearly 60 percent of white Catholics supported Trump nationally, a higher percentage than any other GOP presidential contender in the past 20 years. But Catholics are up for grabs in 2020.

Divided between the two parties — white and Latino Catholics are nearly evenly split — and heavily represented in battleground states, Catholics are a coveted demographic in any election year. Barack Obama won the overall Catholic voters in 2008 and again, narrowly, in 2012. Trump reversed that, winning 52 percent in 2016, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent, according to Pew Research analysis of exit polls.

In the 2018 midterms, 57 percent of white Catholic registered voters identified with or leaned toward the GOP, while 71 percent of Hispanic Catholic registered voters identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, according to Pew.

Clinton missed an opportunity to make a strong case to white Catholics. She never campaigned in Wisconsin during the general election. When Clinton was invited to speak at a St. Patrick’s Day event at the University of Notre Dame, a touchstone of Catholicism, her Brooklyn-based campaign team declined, confident in its sophisticated data projections that white Catholics were not the audience Clinton needed to reach.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins and Vice President Joe Biden enter the school’s commencement ceremony on May 15, 2016, where the politicians were awarded the Laetare Medal. Photo courtesy of University of Notre Dame

It’s hard to imagine Biden similarly brushing off white Catholics at a time when two iconic institutions in their lives — the church and the factory — have been brought low by very different forces. His emphasis on the dignity of work and support for unions are both themes that have been pillars of Catholic social teaching dating back centuries. Catholics who remember the church and labor as allies in the fight for living wages and economic security are natural Biden constituents.

“I am a union man, period,” Biden told the crowd during his first campaign speech at a Teamsters hall in Pittsburgh. Touting a $15 minimum wage and promising to end Trump’s tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest few, he pledged to “reward work in this country, not just wealth.”

Biden’s “Amtrak Joe” reputation as a politician comfortable in diners, bowling alleys and union halls is well known, even as that Everyman image sometimes verges on unhelpful caricature.

Politics can’t be reduced to optics or cultural signaling. Biden’s record and rhetoric will and should be tested. His support for free-trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are provoking strong challenges from Bernie Sanders. Other progressive Democratic nominees are also reminding voters that he backed 2005 legislation that made it harder for consumers to get protection under bankruptcy.

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Source: Religion News Service