John B. Judis: Is Obama Al Smith or John F. Kennedy?





Now that he has clinched the Democratic nomination, pundits will mostly gauge Barack Obama's prospects in the general election by looking at states he can win or constituencies he can carry. But there is another dimension to his candidacy: He represents a social group that was once on the margins of American politics, but now aspires to put one of its own in the highest office. This has happened once before in U.S. politics: when American Catholics saw one of their own nominated to be president.

In 1928, Democrats nominated the Catholic Governor of New York, Al Smith, but he lost to Herbert Hoover. Then, in 1960, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be president. Kennedy's success removed a political stigma from Catholics, to the extent that it is no longer a serious question whether a Catholic can win the presidency, and a Catholic candidate like John Kerry is seen (except by his most fanatical co-religionists) as first and foremost an American politician rather than a representative of his faith.

The question of Obama's prospects can be framed in this manner: Is Obama, the first African American nominee of a major party, going to repeat Al Smith's sorry experience, or will he enjoy John Kennedy's success? The answer is by no means clear yet, but by looking at the historical parallels, one can begin to appreciate the enormous obstacles that Obama faces this November.



Catholics came into Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Party in 1800 in response to Federalist opposition to immigration and have remained there even since, although not in overwhelming numbers. By the 1920s, Catholics constituted about 15 percent of the electorate, and dominated the Democratic party in many Northern cities. Yet they had never nominated one of their own for president, and could boast of relatively few judicial appointments. As far as national politics were concerned, they were still outsiders.

Al Smith, the governor of the nation's most populous and powerful state, was the first Catholic to gain the nomination. He represented a rising Catholic, urban, and immigrant tide, which was moving the Democratic Party away from its rural, western, and evangelical Protestant base. Smith's 1928 campaign dramatically raised the party's totals in northern and Midwestern cities among Catholics as well as first- and second-generation Americans. These voters would stay with the party in 1932 and become central to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition.

Smith knew the disadvantages he faced as a Catholic. "I believe in the absolute separation of church and state," he declared. He chose an Arkansas pro-prohibition Protestant as his running mate. And he assiduously avoided any discussion of religion during the election, as did Hoover. But Protestant politicians and clerics threw every sign of his subordination to Rome back at him. New York City's funding of Catholic schools, which predated Smith, was attributed to him. By Election Day, few Americans were unaware that Smith possessed an autographed photo of the Pope.

In 1928, no Democrat could have defeated Hoover, but the extent of Smith's defeat--he got only 87 electoral votes and, outside the overwhelmingly Democratic deep south, only carried heavily Catholic Massachusetts and Rhode Island--was largely due to an anti-Catholic vote. Nebraska Senator George Norris declared, "the greatest element involved in the landslide was religion." Smith couldn't overcome the widespread prejudice against Catholics and Irish Catholics.



In 1960, John Kennedy succeeded where Smith had failed, winning an extremely narrow victory against Richard Nixon. Kennedy's success is often attributed to his political skill, and to the way he addressed the Catholic question. And that was certainly a factor. Unlike Smith, Kennedy successfully reaffirmed his independence from Catholic dictates. He won the nomination by showing that he could win overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia against Hubert Humphrey. He chose a Protestant as a running mate and as the head of the Democratic National Committee.

But Kennedy also benefited from factors that were outside his control. Unlike Smith, he faced a favorable political climate for Democrats--the result of a flagging economy under Dwight Eisenhower and a Republican party already deeply divided between liberals and conservatives. Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish prejudice had diminished since 1928--largely due to the prolonged process of assimilation brought about by the restrictions on immigration after World War I and by the national unity forged during World War II.

But, as a Catholic, Kennedy still faced formidable obstacles. A 1958 Gallup Poll found that 25 percent of Americans said they wouldn't vote for a Catholic. And according to the Survey Research Center poll after the election, 40 percent of Democratic Protestants who regularly attended church voted against Kennedy. That's a huge number. Where Kennedy benefited was in the peculiar demography of the Catholic vote, of which he won about 80 percent.


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