Douglas Kmiec is a Catholic with a political twist: He sports serious conservative credentials and is campaigning for Sen. Barack Obama.
The chairman of constitutional law at Pepperdine University served as legal counsel to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and once shared an office with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Earlier this year, the pro-life Kmiec volunteered for the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney. He's voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.
In less than a month, Kmiec plans to break his GOP streak and vote for Obama. He's touring swing states with the campaign and asking Catholics to support the Democrat. Kmiec told WORLD that Obama's positions on issues like ending the war and promoting tax policy that he says will "look out for the poor and disadvantaged" come closer to Catholic ideals than do the plans of Sen. John McCain. Other Catholics have severely criticized Kmiec for campaigning for a candidate extremely supportive of abortion's legal status.
Kmiec is one of an estimated 47 million Catholic voters in the United States who form a crucial bloc: Since 1960, the party that won the Catholic vote also won the popular vote. Less than a month before the Nov. 4 elections, the race for Catholics is tight: Recent polls show Obama and McCain neck-and-neck among Catholics and in swing states with large Catholic populations.
With McCain leading among white evangelical voters by 50 percentage points, a handful of other religious groups have emerged as potential game changers: Candidates are wooing Catholics and Jews who could sway national elections, and closely watching Mormons who could affect state elections that carry national implications.
When it comes to state elections, California looms large. Though likely an easy win for Obama, there's a closer showdown on same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court overturned a state law banning same-sex marriage. Nearly 61 percent of voters had approved the law in 2000. Next month, voters will cast ballots on Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The California outcome could affect marriage laws across the country.
Evangelical leaders spent months working to capture enough voters' signatures-nearly 700,000-to put Proposition 8 on the California ballot (see "The power of three," July 26). Since then, Mormons and others have spent millions of dollars to capture a win for the measure.
Frank Schubert, campaign manager for ProtectMarriage.com, the primary grassroots group working to pass the initiative, told The Wall Street Journal that Mormons have been dominant donors, contributing more than a third of the $15.4 million donated to the group since June 1. (Steve Smith, a consultant for "No on 8," a counter-campaign working to defeat the measure, says his group had raised about $13 million by mid-September.)
The heavy Mormon involvement was no coincidence: In June top leaders in the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) sent a letter to all Mormon congregations in California urging members to "do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment."
It was a striking move for a group typically quiet on political matters: LDS was mum on Romney during the lifelong Mormon's primary campaign earlier this year, emphasizing that its officials don't endorse candidates. But an LDS explanatory document called marriage "a sacred institution" and said its preservation is important "to our religion and the future of our society." Another LDS document noted its teaching that Mormon couples remain married for eternity, signaling another theological underpinning of their political concerns.
Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center told WORLD that Romney's high-profile run earlier this year may have encouraged more visible political involvement from Mormons as well: "After the candidacy of Gov. Romney, they're staying around until the end."
Roman Catholics are staying around as well: The Knights of Columbus (KOC), a Catholic fraternal organization with 1.75 million members worldwide, has contributed nearly $1.3 million to promoting the ballot initiative in California.
KOC spokesman Patrick Korten told WORLD the nonprofit organization has also contributed to marriage-related ballot measures this year in Arizona and Florida. He says the group has worked on similar projects in dozens of states in the past. "The behavior of the courts in recent years has been atrocious," says Korten.
Like many Catholics, the KOC finds another issue atrocious: legalized abortion. The group has produced pro-life radio spots for stations across the country. Korten acknowledges that some pro-life Catholics vote for pro-abortion candidates, but he says: "It's time to put our foot down as Catholic, pro-life voters, and say: 'You can't have my vote so easily.'"
If Catholic voters are conflicted over abortion, Obama's Catholic running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, may not be helping. While Biden recently told NBC's Tom Brokaw, "I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception," he added, "But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society."
Two prominent Catholic bishops-Cardinal Justin F. Rigali and Bishop William E. Lori-released a statement refuting Biden's position: "Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice." Joseph Martino, a bishop in Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pa., said he would bar any pro-abortion politician from Holy Communion.
But not all Catholics are primarily concerned with social issues, and many support legalized abortion. Cromartie notes that Catholic voters cover a broad spectrum that is "more diverse than American evangelicals."
Many Catholics have embraced left-leaning policies on economic issues, a dynamic that could have major implications during the current financial crisis. The candidate that voters trust more on economic matters could carry the close Catholic vote, including 41 percent of Catholic voters who identify themselves as independent.
In the final weeks before the election, both campaigns are wooing Catholics: McCain has met privately with Rigali, one of the Pennsylvania bishops critical of Biden, and with Archbishop Charles Chaput, a conservative bishop from Denver. Obama's campaign has held "brunch for Barack" events after Sunday Mass at churches in Pennsylvania and has organized "nun banks" to call lists of Catholic voters.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., told The New York Times the hard work in the swing state could pay off: "Whoever wins the Catholic vote will generally win our state and, most of the time, the nation."
The gap among Jewish voters is much wider: In this group, Obama leads McCain by 27 points, according to an American Jewish Committee poll. But more than 13 percent of Jewish voters remain undecided, representing a larger margin than usual at this point in an election season, and a possible opening for McCain in Florida-a swing state with a large Jewish population.
Obama's trouble shoring up Jewish voters may come from several sources: Many Jewish voters backed Sen. Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and some may like McCain's foreign policy views, particularly his tough stance on Iran.
But political observers predicted that McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, could turn away Jewish voters when reports surfaced that David Brickner, the executive director of Jews for Jesus, preached a sermon at Palin's church in August. Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) said Palin's conservative views on abortion, climate change, and creationism were "totally out of step with the American Jewish community," according to Politico.com.
Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings was harsher: During an NJDC panel discussion in September, the black Democrat told minorities to beware of Palin because "anybody toting guns and stripping moose don't care too much about what they do with Jews and blacks."
Hastings later apologized, saying his remarks "were not smart, and certainly not relevant to hunters or sportsmen." Hastings added that he still believed a McCain-Palin administration would promote policies "anathema to most African Americans and Jews."
Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella declined to comment on Hastings' remarks, telling ABC: "We're taking a pass."