Monday, February 11, 2008

The Filipino American Catholic Vote

Filipino Americans are part of the broader Asian American group that constitutes 6% of the US population. Filipino American Catholics (85% of Filipinos are Catholics), however, are part of the larger US Catholic community that constitutes more than 25% of the registered voters in the country. That bit is also the largest group of swing voters in the US and is especially significant because Catholics have backed the winner of the “national popular vote” in every US presidential election since 1972.

As Jim Dwyer noted in his New York Times column, Catholics voted for five Republican and three Democratic presidents and one “popular-vote-winning but presidency-losing” Democrat, Al Gore. “No other large group has switched sides so often”, Dwyer wrote, “or been so consistently aligned with the winners. Over that same period, a majority of white Protestants typically voted Republican, while blacks of all faiths and Jews strongly backed Democrats”.

There was a time more than 40 years ago when US Catholics were overwhelmingly Democrats especially because of John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic ever to be elected US president. But now Catholics don’t even vote for Catholic Democrats. In 2004, Protestant George W. Bush received 53% of the Catholic vote over Catholic John F. Kerry who received 47%.

Catholics supported Bill Clinton in his two presidential runs and Hillary Clinton in her two senatorial campaigns including her re-election campaign against a Catholic Republican opponent. In the Super Tuesday New York presidential primary on February 5, 66% of the Catholic voters voted for Hillary compared to 30% for Barack Obama. Brian O'Dwyer attributed Catholics support for the Clintons to what he said was their attention to the issues ethnic and working-class Catholics cared about like social security, health care, education and immigration reform.

New York Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan believes there is another reason Catholics, especially older ones, support Hillary. It's because older Catholic voters grew up with women in charge of daily life, she said. “Maybe we’re a little bit more open to female leadership,” Ms. Nolan told Dwyer. “We had female role models from an early age. When I was growing up, all the Catholic school principals were women, and almost none of the public school principals were. The nuns were the people we saw every day, and they were running the whole show.”

Filipinos, unlike other Asians, are accustomed to seeing women in authority. There have been two female presidents in the Philippines since 1946 while there have been none in the US since George Washington became president in 1789.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and re-elected in 1984 on both occasions with the backing of what are still called the "Reagan Democrats". Who will this group of disaffected Democrats support this November?

Raymond Flynn, a former Democratic mayor of Boston who was president of the Washington DC-based Catholic Alliance, endorsed Bush over Gore in the 2000 elections because he felt abandoned by the Democratic Party on issues of trade, health care, and abortion. Flynn, who regularly speaks to Catholic groups all over the US, senses that Catholics are now returning to the fold. "Right now, the so-called Reagan Democrat, they're going Democrat," Flynn said. "Health care, education, human rights — these issues are so compelling in this election that they're voting Democrat."

A nationwide poll of Catholic voters conducted by the author (William D'Antonio) of "American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church," found 82% of Catholic Democrats and 52% of Catholic Republicans favored "more government funding to provide health care to poor children". This position was opposed by Pres. Bush who in 2007 vetoed the SCHIP (State Children Health Insurance Program) bill that would have extended health insurance to poor children. In the 2006 congressional elections, Democrats won 55% of the Catholic vote.

Two years earlier, in the 2004 presidential elections, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput openly endorsed Bush over Kerry because of their positions on abortion. But many Catholcs agreed with the National Catholic Register newspaper that opposition to the death penalty was also a “right to life” issue because abortion and the death penalty fall under the same Fifth Commandment heading -- “Thou Shall Not Kill.”

Most Catholics tend to be “Cafeteria Catholics”, picking and choosing which Catholic doctrine to accept or reject. Many liberal Catholics, for example, reject “creationism” and accept evolution, reject “pro-life” and are “pro-choice”. They support the church’s position on helping the poor and supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Many conservative Catholics, on the other hand, oppose abortion and amnesty for illegal immigrants but support the death penalty and tax cuts for the wealthy.

With John McCain as the certain Republican Party presidential candidate, the “right to life” issue will be more complicated. In a 1999 statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, McCain said he did not advocate repealing Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. “I’d love to see a point where it is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.”

This position explains why John McCain received strong backing from pro-choice Republicans. In Missouri, those favoring completely legalized abortion voted 48 % for McCain. In California, McCain received 49 % of the vote from those who want abortion to be “mostly legal.”

With the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates holding generally similar views on abortion, more or less, Catholics will have to look at the candidates’ positions on war and peace, the death penalty, immigration reform, tax cuts, housing, economic justice, welfare reform, the federal deficit, civil liberties, education, and health care.

Filipino American Catholics will also have to look at the candidates' position on the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill which is supported by Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama and opposed by Sen. McCain.

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