Soren Dayton posted a fascinating analysis at Red State last week detailing the ward-by-ward electoral map of Philadelphia and concluding that Barack Obama ‘s poor performance in ethic Catholic neighborhoods might signal a “realignment that puts the Northeast and the Rust Belt back in play” (If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a must-read and has great maps to reinforce his argument).
I emailed Soren after he posted it and mentioned that while Obama has certainly been struggling with ethic Catholics, he’s excelled with mainline, Midwestern Protestants and has won key states in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Obama’s weakness with ethics in Rust Belt states could be offset by his strength with the civic-minded Lutherans (and to a lesser extend Methodists) or Northern European descent in the Upper Midwest.
Soren emailed back his response, noting that there really is no data to back up the point that mainline Protestants are supporting Obama, and in any event, mainline Protestants who are Democrats are a pretty liberal bunch. Think Jim McGovern, he suggested. Soren also addressed Rust Belt ethics, noting that “The urban Catholic thing is probably different enough from the Jacksonian/Scots-Irish thing,” and that this voting bloc still has functioning machines in many Eastern industrial cities.
I agree with Soren on ethic Catholics, but I’m still not sure if it would offset Obama’s appeal in the Upper Midwest. Here’s my response to Soren:
I don’t have specific data to prove my point, but I think you’re underestimating Obama’s strength with the type of voters in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. He won the overwhelmingly white caucus states of Iowa and Minnesota (and working class whites in Wisconsin) because voters in these state hail from a Northern European heritage that values effective government over ideology. And they’re attracted to Obama’s abstract post-partisan messages of good-government and “hope” and are willing to overlook his liberalism.
Cultural issues like abortion might work with Southern Baptists and Rust Belt Catholics, but the Dutch Calvinists and German Lutherans of the Upper Midwest have a different agenda. They think in terms of efficiently rather than ideology, as evidenced by the fact that Iowa has always had the best schools and highest graduation rates, Minnesota has always had the highest voter participation rate and well-funded public radio and Wisconsin has the only publicly-owned pro sports franchise.
The Rust Belt Catholics that you mentioned, on the other hand, are certainly a vulnerable point for Obama. He’s been losing ethic Catholics as a dangerous rate, and Tom Schaller has noted that “In every presidential election since 1972 the winner of the Catholic vote has won the national popular vote, something no other religious group – Jews, evangelicals, Protestants – can boast.” Bush took 52 percent of Catholics in 2004 and Democrats won 55 percent of the demographic group in 2006.
Assuming he’s the nominee, Obama’s best chance to offset McCain’s targeting of ethic Catholics in the Rust Belt and industrial East Coast cities would be to target what I call Volvo Republicans. These “Obamacans,” as the candidate has called them, are prevalent in the Philadelphia and Northern Virginia suburbs. They’re the kind of Matthew Dowd-type of Republicans who have said they’d feel queasy attacking Obama (But that was before the Wright controversy, and I wonder if that episode may have had a lasting effect).
If McCain can secure those suburban, Volvo Republicans and win a strong proportion of ethic, conservative Catholics in cities Philadelphia, he has a good chance of winning Pennsylvania and even putting New Jersey and other Northeastern states into play. But he’s going to have a tougher time countering Obama’s appeal with mainline Protestants in the Upper Midwest, especially if the GOP decides to focus on hot-button cultural issues.