The defeat of former President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election shows that closing churches or otherwise shutting down church practices can lead to opposition by a critical group of swing voters.
Antonia Novello was the surgeon general under the Bush administration. While Bush had other liabilities in addition to Novello, his surgeon general’s drunken driving prevention agenda torpedoed Bush’s support among those he was counting on to save him.
Bush tended to ignore economic problems, probably aware that the voters lost faith in his economic promises after he reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge and that he was in part responsible for the recession. Bush courted those attracted to “family values,” swing voters who provided Ronald Reagan with formerly Democrat votes.
The “family values” interest group consists mainly of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. These two groups are not homogeneous and were it not for “family values” issues, they would probably be at each other’s throats. However, these two groups share opposition to abortion, support of a school voucher system and a tax relief structure which allows a wife to stay home with her children. Although Catholics tend to be more active in peace and social justice issues, former President Bill Clinton’s use of the death penalty and his willingness to send troops to Europe gave him no advantage on those grounds.
Evangelical Protestants voted 80% for Bush. Catholics gave Clinton 44% and Bush 36% – a greater margin for Clinton than the electorate as a whole. In California Catholic voters gave Clinton 48% and Bush 29% – again more hostile to Bush than the non-Catholic electorate.
Latter-day Saints also make up a part of the “family values” coalition. However, their vote totals were unavailable and, based on the Utah balloting, were not expected to differ significantly from the Protestant vote.
Since George McGovern made abortion an issue in 1972, Bush’s showing was the worst ever for a right-to-life candidate from a major party. Claims that Catholics dissent from the church position on abortion cannot justify George Bush’s horrendous showing.
Catholics partake in a ritual known as “Communion,” “The Eucharist” or “The Transubstantiation.” The sacrament involves the Catholic drinking the wine, which transforms into the blood of Jesus Christ. Catholic children experience their First Communion around the age of eight.
Novello, however, decided not only that the drinking age of 21 was a good idea to stop drunken driving, but that there were “loopholes” which allowed minors in some states to drink alcohol. Among these “loopholes” were exceptions for religious purposes. What’s the First Amendment when safety is involved?
Abortion may be unacceptable to practicing Catholics, but it isn’t a threat to the practice of their religion. Novello’s initiative was. Her brother-in-law, actor Don Novello, only mocked the Catholic Church as Father Guido Sarducci. Antonio Novello was an outright threat to the practice of the Catholic religion.
Let’s review the election results. Clinton received 43.1% of the total popular vote, with Bush receiving 37.4% of the vote. Approximately one-quarter of Americans are Catholic, so a 12-point turnaround in the Catholic vote would have given Bush a popular, if not an electoral, majority.
That 12-point turnaround would have required Bush to get 48% of the vote to Clinton’s 32% – assuming that the 20% for Ross Perot and others was unchanged. For a right-to-life candidate not to get 48% of the Catholic vote, Bush had to have alienated more Catholics than just the ones who dissent from church positions.
Although that scenario would require Bush to receive 60% of the major-party vote, in a two-candidate contest he would have clinched the popular vote with 58% of the vote to Clinton’s 42%. With the candidates’ stark contrast on abortion and school vouchers, 58% of the Catholic vote was not an unreachable figure. And with 80% of the evangelical Protestants going for Bush, 48% in a three-way race wasn’t that hard to obtain.
Bush’s appeal to family values was his best shot; having offended everyone else he knew that the “family values” groups were the only ones who could save him. But voters with those religious beliefs had no desire to retain the Bush administration. Antonia Novello’s drunken driving prevention program may have saved lives, but her extension of it kept George Bush’s political life from being saved.
Joe Naiman can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.