Since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, the religious conservative vote has belonged to the GOP. When these voters were dispirited in 1992 and 1996, the Republicans lost the White House.
Like Evangelicals, Catholic voters are showing less affection for the GOP, primarily because of dissatisfaction with the Iraq War. Unlike 2004, when the war did not affect the Catholic voter, Catholics are now much more aware of Vatican criticism leveled at the U.S. invasion and occupation. As Douglas Belkin reported in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, "Conservative Catholics now appear to be more concerned about the economy and the war in Iraq, and less motivated by abortion, the issue that has long kept the voting bloc aligned with Republicans."
It must have been a great relief to John McCain and the Republican Party that Benedict XVI did not underscore his differences with President Bush on Iraq during his recent visit.
McCain faces a tall challenge. Evangelicals feel rejected, and faithful Catholics are confused. Evangelicals have seen McCain ask for their endorsement and then give it back to them. At the same time, many Catholics wonder if McCain's support of embryonic stem cell research weakens his pro-life position enough to justify a vote against him on the basis of the Iraq War.
Obama's weakness with Catholic voters may help ameliorate McCain's concern about Catholic discontent over Iraq. But will the Catholic Democrats who voted for Clinton abandon party loyalties and support McCain? Obama's extremism on abortion, along with his support for gay marriage, may remind them of why they voted for Reagan (and even Bush).
It's doubtful, however, that McCain can depend on moderate Republicans and Democrats -- many of whom are blue-collar Catholics -- to win in November. Just as the Religious Right emerged quickly to support Reagan's candidacy, it may just as quickly decide to challenge the GOP in some fashion before the election.
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As another Evangelical leader told me, "We should not be led by Republicans -- we are primarily a spiritual movement and should be influencing them." Right now, the generals and the ground troops of the Religious Right feel as if their influence has lost. At the moment, they're looking for a clear signal from the McCain campaign that he is going to make it a priority to protect marriage.
At present, McCain opposes a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- he prefers states to make their own decision on the issue. A decision by McCain, in response to the threat posed by the California decision, to back a constitutional amendment would electrify religious conservatives.
Without a gesture of this sort, the McCain candidacy will not have the enthusiastic backing of voters who have provided the winning difference for the GOP over the past 30 years, and will face the prospect of a highly energized Obama campaign.