Could Newt Gingrich Win the "Catholic" Vote?

Is there a Catholic "swing" vote in US presidential politics, and if so, could the thrice-married Newt Gingrich somehow swing that vote back to the GOP?

Much of the debate over the politics of Gingrich's marriage history has focused on evangelical Christians. But unlike evangelicals, who naturally tilt Republican (they voted 3-1 for John McCain in 2008), Catholics tend to divide their votes more evenly between the two parties. Barack Obama carried them by a whopping 9 points over McCain in 2008, after George W. Bush beat John Kerry among Catholics by 5 points in 2004. That 14-point shift may not seem like much, but consider that Catholics represent over a quarter of the US electorate. In a tight race, which 2012 is likely to be, even a 3-4 point vote swing back to the GOP could have enormous implications.

Consider also where many Catholic voters are located. Higher than average concentrations are found in traditionally Democratic-leaning Northeastern states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but Catholics are also heavily congregated in battleground states like Ohio and Florida where a relatively small swing of Catholic voters can provide the margin of difference. And it's not just certain states that matter. Key constituencies like blue-collar workers, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans, and even more so, Hispanics, who overwhelmingly identify as Catholic, could be highly susceptible to appeals based on their faith.

In fact, what makes a Gingrich candidacy especially intriguing - and perhaps unusually threatening to Democrats - is that Republicans have never chosen a Catholic - let alone an outspoken one like Gingrich - as their nominee. A number have competed in the past for the nomination, including most recently, former New York city Rudy Giuliani - who was the GOP front-runner for most of 2007, before his candidacy collapsed - but none have come close to getting the nod.

Which means if Gingrich does, we'll be entering entirely new territory when it comes to presidential politics and religion.

In theory, Gingrich's bid to seize his party's Catholic mantle faces stiff competition from former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who, unlike Gingrich, is a respected pro-life standard-bearer. But Santorum's a long-shot candidate at best. In fact, in a poll conducted over Thanksgiving by the conservative organization CatholicVote.Org, Gingrich emerged as the undisputed leader among GOP Catholics, with 44% of the vote, compared to just 18% for Santorum. No other GOP candidate even made it into double figures.

Gingrich has already surrounded himself with a bevy of high-level Catholic "advisors," including Vince Haley, the co-author of two of his books and his current policy director in South Carolina who once led a successful battle to have a Catholic cross re-installed in a parish church sanctuary at William & Mary. ("He reads Papal encyclicals for a hobby," Gingrich says.) Another is Deal Hudson, the controversial Fordham scholar-turned policy activist who was also Karl Rove's top Catholic "go-to" man during the Bush campaign in 2000. Gingrich, with support from figures like Hudson, has built unusually strong bridges to the US Roman Catholic hierarchy, which is likely to extol his virtues in a general election battle, and make special efforts to get conservative Catholics to the polls.

Would it matter? It well might, but here's the rub: it might not actually help Gingrich much, given the poor-to-fair standing of the Catholic hierarchy with many Catholic church-goers. In fact, one could easily imagine a grassroots Catholic backlash against Gingrich were he to overplay his connections with the American bishops, or worse, to Rome and the Pope. Gingrich, since his conversion, has used his emerging media empire, which has earned him a personal fortune, to finance a series of documentaries, many of them produced and narrated by his wife, a devout Catholic since her youth. One of those documentaries, "Nine Days That Changed the World," is about Pope John Paul 2, who was a key Reagan administration ally in the global anticommunist struggles of the 1980s, from Poland to Nicaragua. While many Catholics have praised the film, Gingrich surely knows that anti-Papist sentiment is still a major force in the Bible Belt South, where anti-Catholic prejudice rivals the region's traditional antipathy towards Mormons.

Which means that if Gingrich overplays his Catholic hand, he could wind up getting political heat not just from the left, but from his own Christian base.

Of course, Gingrich, who was never much of a Baptist prior to his Catholic "conversion" in 2009, is no more of a religious yahoo today. And his newfound religious zeal, if displayed judiciously, could serve him well in the general election. Even those who downplay the importance of the Catholic vote acknowledge that Catholicism provides a powerful language for injecting moral claims into politics, a mission that Gingrich clearly relishes. Catholic concepts such as "just war," the "sanctity of life," "compassion for the poor," and "the dignity of work," could provide Gingrich with fodder to cast moral doubt on Obama's domestic and foreign policies, deflecting attention away from Republican economic policies that generally favor the rich - and from his own personal shortcomings.

In fact, some heavily Catholic voters, including Hispanics, who tend to be far more supportive of church authority than mainstream Catholics - and far more forgiving of straying politicians - might well rally to Gingrich's side. According to published surveys, Hispanics, especially foreign-born immigrants, attend church more often, pray more regularly and are twice as likely to oppose abortion. They also tend to be unusually patriotic and pro-"law and order." But most expect Republican candidates to support a role for government in the economy, a social safety net for the poor, and of course, more generous immigration policies. Gingrich, perhaps alone among the current GOP field, seems to fit the "ideal" Hispanic profile, one of the reasons that some in the Obama camp have grown increasingly worried about a Gingrich candidacy, as well they should.

It's not apparent now, but should Gingrich capture the nomination, expect a major Hispanic "roll-out," with the former House speaker peppering his speeches with Spanish catch-phrases, while invoking the teachings of Jesus to justify everything from the importance of school vouchers to expand Hispanic educational opportunities to the powerful role of Hispanic immigrant entrepreneurs in the rebuilding of the US economy. These same themes will also resonate strongly with Hispanic Protestants, whom polls show tend to favor Republicans over Democrats. And Gingrich's bilingual "Americano" web site, managed by a former Miami Herald reporter, and already a credible source of news and information about Hispanic affairs, could evolve into a vehicle for expanded social media outreach with a distinctly religious flavor.

Right now, Democratic campaign strategists remain focused almost exclusively on Mitt Romney and are still largely ignoring Gingrich, at least publicly. They're clearly hoping to conduct the same negative campaign against the former Massachusetts governor that they waged so effectively against John McCain in 2008, portraying Romney and the GOP as anti-Hispanic and racist, and out of touch with Main Street. Hints about Romney's "bizarre" Mormonism will surely be dropped, exploiting latent concerns in the electorate about whether Mormons can be trusted to serve in high office. But if Romney is the nominee, explicit religious messaging isn't likely to figure prominently in Obama's re-election campaign.

That means Obama could well get caught flat-footed if Gingrich, after a prolonged primary battle, suddenly gets the nod. A liberal secularist by inclination, the president is not strongly positioned to do battle on religious issues with a Republican candidate of Gingrich's sophistication. And Obama's support among Catholics is slipping badly, giving a Catholic-fueled conservative offensive an opening to take hold. Meeting with the Catholic Bishops to try to re-pair a once-friendly relationship that is threatening to unravel over ObamaCare and cutbacks in public funding for Catholic programs should be a top White House priority. And it's not too early to start looking for Catholic "surrogates" who can help translate the president's flailing economic agenda into terms that middle class White and Hispanic church-goers in swing districts, hard-hit by recession and joblessness, can readily understand, and embrace.