Pope Francis: The GOP's Biggest Threat in 2016?
Greg Valliere, the chief political strategist at the nonpartisan Potomac Research Group, believes that the new climate change encyclical is going to be the biggest news story of 2015, and a significant headache for the Republican Party.
Valliere is of course referring to the fact that Catholics make up almost one-quarter of the U.S. voting electorate -- when the pope makes a pontifical command, it's usually wise for political strategists to take note. But he's also probably overestimating the impact of this demographic's history of moving as a lock-step voting bloc.
As a whole, American Catholics are slightly more likely to believe in climate change -- and that it is man-made -- than the general population. Also, like the population at large, American Catholics are sharply divided by party affiliation as to the role and significance of climate change, mirroring the Democratic numbers, yet slightly higher among Republicans.
In the population at large, belief that global warming is occurring is nearly twice as common among Democrats as Republicans (86% vs. 45%).
The real question at hand is, will this encyclical become a sore-spot in the Republican Party's hold on the American (especially white) faithful in the 2016 election cycle?
Since 2000, the Republicans have dominated the white Christian voting demographic, and have brought more and more of these voters into the fold of the conservative voting bloc.
Republicans have also gained ground with American Catholics, but this is where the real demographic differences come into play.
White Catholics are increasingly more likely to vote Republican, while Hispanic Catholics are more likely to vote Democratic.
The Hispanic demographic has been the fastest growing demographic in the American electorate, growing by over 50 percent per decade since the 1980s.
The faithful in this demographic, which is largely Catholic, have overwhelmingly supported Democrats in each election since 2000, starting at about two-thirds support in 2000 and ending with three-fourths support in the 2012 presidential election.
This demographic is also primarily concerned about day-to-day political issues such as education, jobs, and healthcare, as opposed to the more philosophical and party ideological issues like foreign policy or social issues.
While these facts and figures are rather dry and drawn-out, they lead to only one inevitable conclusion...
There Really Isn't a 'Mythical' Catholic Voting Bloc to Capture
Yes, there are trends, and even the above statistics show that the Catholic voting bloc can be divided into rather predictable sub-groups.
But by and large, the belief Catholics can be swayed by the outside influence of priests, bishops, and popes has been an ugly myth present since the very beginnings of the republic.
American Catholics felt like the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 unfairly singled them out as being vulnerable to "foreign intrigues." This was probably not a baseless feeling considering that the first prosecution under these laws was a Catholic.
The antebellum Know Nothings were so convinced of papal influence in the Catholic vote that a large part of their platform was a 25-year residency requirement for Catholics to be able to vote, as well as forcing them to take oaths disavowing allegiance to the pope before being eligible to run for office.
After the Civil War, the state legislatures were so convinced that Catholic voters would rob the state coffers to support their private schools that Blaine Amendments sprung up throughout America forbidding state funding of religious organizations.
And this ugly list could go on and on, but the entire point is that there has been a consistent belief throughout American history that Catholics are a mindless voting bloc subject to the whims of their leadership.
John F. Kennedy overwhelmingly won the Catholic vote -- 75 percent, compared to 49.7 percent of the popular vote as a whole -- but a presidential candidate being Catholic isn't automatically going to gain the bloc's vote. John Kerry lost the Catholic vote to G.W. Bush by a percentage much greater than the popular vote as a whole.
While the lock-step voting bloc isn't a political reality, the Republicans still need to tread lightly, but for an entirely different reason.
Neither Party Can Afford to Alienate Any Voting Demographic
In all likelihood, the 2016 election will be won by the smallest of margins, both in the popular vote and the Electoral College. With some analysts already declaring as few as seven battleground states, each party is in a position of needing to be a party of inclusion, not one of exclusion or insult.
With Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum, all Republican candidates who are also Catholic, stating that the pope should stay out of politics and the climate change debate, there is a growing likelihood that a portion of the Catholic faithful will take offense at such a position.While the pope's new encyclical will probably not sway the American Catholic vote, how the Republican contenders -- even those who are Catholic -- react to it will probably have more of an impact and sway.
As Pope Francis states in the opening of the encyclical, all popes since John XXIII had maintained a 20th century tradition of environmentalism, concern for the environment's role in the world's economy, and the "tragic consequences" of unchecked human activity.
To the faithful "with ears," this is a continuation of previous teachings, not a unique, new direction that Francis is taking the Church.
By trying to undermine the pope's credibility or authority, they risk alienating the devout faithful. By trying to dispute the content of the encyclical, they enter into an endless quagmire of back and forth debate over what a religious document "says" under their political ideological lenses.
Even worse, by stating that the pope should stay out of scientific areas of discussion makes for one of the greatest statements of political hypocrisy -- that only politicians should have the right to weigh in on a scientific debate.
Direct papal commands aren't universally followed in the ballot box, from artificial birth control to abortion and capital punishment.
Insults tend to stick -- and once thrown out into the political discourse, they are almost impossible to take back.
While objection to climate change is a part of the Republican platform, it isn't an issue that is going to sway voters like jobs, the economy, Middle Eastern wars, or immigration. The Republican's over-reaction to the release of this encyclical has made a mountain out of a political mole-hill, and it was done almost exclusively by their own actions.
The Republican's best course of action: simply ignore it.