PARMA, Ohio -- Senator John F. Kerry is having trouble wooing fellow Roman Catholics in Iowa and Wisconsin. President Bush is short of his expected Catholic count in Michigan and Minnesota. Once reliably Democratic, Catholics have become one of the most complicated and coveted swing voting blocs.
Catholics make up one-quarter of the electorate nationwide, with larger percentages in a dozen battleground states, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Maine, Nevada, Florida, Missouri, and Ohio.
Four years ago, Democrat Al Gore edged Bush among Catholics, 50 percent to 47 percent, according to exit polls. So far this year, the Republican incumbent is splitting the vote with Kerry, the first Catholic to run for president since Democrat John F. Kennedy got 83 percent of the Catholic vote against Republican Richard M. Nixon in 1960.
Catholics kept voting Democratic until 1972, when they gave 61 percent of their support to Nixon. They have been independent-minded ever since -- narrowly backing Republican Ronald Reagan twice and giving 20 percent of their support to Ross Perot in 1992 while handing Bill Clinton about half their votes.
The Catholic vote has shifted as lifelong Democrats -- many of them from blue-collar, ethnic suburbs like Parma -- began to wonder whether their party had become too liberal on social issues, if not economic policy. They were "Reagan Democrats," charter members of Nixon's "Silent Majority."
They are Catholics like Irene Sandor, 75, who stood on her tiny cement porch Tuesday in Parma while watching Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards, arrive at a community center across the street. "The last Democrat I voted for was John Kennedy," she said. "Kerry, I know he's Catholic. But I also know he's a liberal."
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll indicated that a majority of Catholics who are likely voters attend Mass at least once a week, and Bush gets a majority of the churchgoers' votes. The Republican campaign is appealing to them through the mail, telephone calls, and presidential events by emphasizing Bush's conservative views, particularly on abortion, that line up with the Vatican's teachings.
The Republican National Committee says it has 45,000 "team leaders" reaching out to fellow Catholics and collecting parish directories to identify new voters. A committee website for Catholics plays up Kerry's differences with the Vatican on abortion and gay rights.
Catholics who do not attend Mass regularly tend to back Kerry, according to the AP-Ipsos poll. Many of them are targeted by Kerry's campaign because they are part of his base -- union members, minorities, and low-income earners.
Catholic swing voters tend not to mix their religion with their politics. Thus, Bush and Kerry are appealing to them the same as they do other swing voters by pushing poll-tested issues such as education and health care while trying to undercut each other's character.
Gore narrowly won Wisconsin while carrying the state's Catholic vote by three percentage points. Private and public polls indicate Bush is tied or winning among Catholics there.
Though the small sample sizes prohibit definitive conclusions, surveys conducted for the campaigns indicate Kerry also is lagging behind Gore's Catholic totals in Iowa and perhaps Ohio. Bush is not doing as well as he did four years ago in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Michigan.