The Scranton Perplex

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David Kirkpatrick’s article on Scranton Catholics and the abortion issue in today’s NYT has left me scratching my head. The premise, enunciated in the headline, is: “Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes.” But is it the abortion issue that’s doing the dividing? Yes, some of the dozens of Catholics that Kirkpatrick talked to cite it as the reason they are intending to vote for McCain this time around. Here’s one example:

Paul MacDonald, a retired social worker mingling over coffee after Mass at Holy Rosary, said he had voted for Mr. Kerry four years ago and Mrs. Clinton in the primary but now planned to vote for Mr. McCain because of “the life issue.”

OK, but both Kerry and Clinton were as pro-choice as Barack Obama is. And truth to tell, John McCain is less pro-life (cf. stem cell research) than President Bush. So what’s going on here?
I’d say it’s race. Kirkpatrick doesn’t avoid the race issue. One of his interviewees says he won’t be voting for Obama just because he’s black, and Franklin and Marshall political scientist Terry Madonna is quoted as saying, “This is a tough area for Obama and some of it is race.” More race than abortion? That question is not addressed. But it’s a lot more comfortable to do a story about white working class Catholics voting for McCain on pro-life than racial grounds.
What are the fundamentals of the Catholic vote in Scranton? About half the people Lackawanna County belong to the Church–as opposed to 30 percent in Pennsylvania as a whole. In 2004, the county preferred Kerry to Bush by 56-43. (Statewide, Catholics preferred Kerry by 51-49–exactly the same margin by which Kerry carried the state–though Kerry lost the white Catholic vote 48-52.) Would Obama pick up some white Catholic votes in Scranton if he were as pro-life as, say, Pennsylvania’s junior senator (and Scranton native) Bob Casey, Jr.? It seems commonsensical to say yes (though see here for why common sense may be wrong). But I dare say he’d pick up a lot more if he were white.

  • Race and ethnicity have been means for division throughout the history of the Scranton area. In the past these divisions were perhaps more widely accepted as the “natural” order of things. Now, the myth of celebrating diversity tends to gloss over the real divisions that still exist in Scranton–divisions of race but also of economic class, neighborhood, culture, and language.

  • Tom Hambrick

    Having grown up in central PA, I can attest to your premise here. It’s not just Scranton though. What did James Carville say, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between”?
    This is much bigger than PA, as illustrated by the ’06 Ford-corker Senate race in TN.
    Jim Cafferty of CNN picked up this yesterday too.
    I think it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing MSM coverage of the race issue in PA, OH, IN, MI, TN, et al.