Catholic voters are expected to play a key role in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party presidential primary, the New York Sun reports.
Catholics could compose up to one third of voters in the important April 22 election.
Exit polls from past presidential primary elections indicate that Catholics have preferred New York Senator Hillary Clinton to Illinois Senator Barack Obama by a margin of up to 65 percent. Even the majority of Catholic Democrats in Senator Obama’s home state of Illinois voted for Senator Clinton.
"The consistent polling has been that the bedrock of her strength is Catholic Democrats," said Brian O'Dwyer, a Clinton supporter who heads the National Ethnic Democratic Leadership Council.
While some have attributed Senator Clinton’s lead among Catholics to her success among Hispanic voters, she won the majority of white Catholics’ votes in Ohio and Rhode Island.
Senator Obama won the Catholic vote in Vermont, but with a thin margin of victory. Obama supporters note that he has won some states with sizable Catholic populations, such as Missouri and Louisiana.
Obama's director of religious affairs, Joshua DuBois, downplayed concerns about the senator’s low support among Catholics. DuBois said the campaign would be "aggressively and robustly reaching out to Catholics" in coming weeks.
"There's no concern there, because this introduction is just getting started," DuBois said, according to the New York Sun, "and as more and more Catholics get to know who Senator Obama is and what he stands for, we are 100% confident that he will be the candidate for Catholic voters, not just in the primary but on into the general election."
Obama’s campaign has actively reached out to Catholic Democrats. In February Senator Obama sent a letter to thousands of nuns across the country. The campaign also held several “community faith forums” in Ohio, including two directed at Catholic voters. The forums featured former Indiana congressman Timothy Roemer and Victoria Kennedy, the wife of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.
The reasons for Senator Clinton’s success among Catholic Democrats are unclear. "We've not picked up anybody who says, 'I'm a Catholic, and I'm voting for Hillary,'" said political scientist G. Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin and Marshall Poll in Pennsylvania.
Madonna said that Clinton’s success could be due to several factors. He suggested that working-class Catholic voters respond favorably to Clinton’s "bread and butter table talk" about issues like health care and the economy, but not to Senator Obama’s rhetoric about a “new kind of politics.”
The possibility that Catholic Democrats could cross over to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, has also become an issue. According to the New York Sun, O’Dwyer said that Obama’s poor showing among Catholics “spells disaster for the Democrats if Obama were the nominee.”
Michael Tobman, a Democratic consultant who supports Obama, denied that Catholic Democrats would vote in large numbers for McCain. However, he said Senator McCain, who self-identifies as a Baptist, could have an advantage with Irish Catholics.
"For nothing more than his last name, McCain starts with a leg up in the Catholic community," Tobman said.