Election 2020

Bernie Sanders to Visit Pope Francis, Days Before New York Primary

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Bernie Sanders campaign announced on Friday that liberal millennials’ favorite septuagenarian senator will be visiting the Vatican and Pope Francis a mere four days before the pivotal New York primary. At first, this seems insane, since New York is Hillary Clinton’s “home state” and Sanders is trying to make a strong play there. This move may be perfect, however, considering Clinton’s heavy support from the state’s Catholics in 2008.

New York is the fifth most Catholic state in the nation, and Clinton won it handily eight years ago. She also won the heavily Catholic Massachusetts primary on Super Tuesday last month. Four of the five most Catholic states are yet to vote in the Democratic primary, and three of them vote later this month. Sanders is trying to connect with Catholics on economic and environment issues, areas where the senator and the pope see eye to eye.

Sanders’ campaign said the senator was invited to attend a conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences “on social, economic, and environmental issues.” His appearance will coincide with the 25th anniversary of “Centesimus Annus,” an encyclical from Pope John Paul II which addresses workers’ rights and other economic and social issues. Ironically, this encyclical has been praised by conservatives for stressing the importance of the free market, but Sanders and Francis have often pushed the liberal side of the debate.

“I am delighted to have been invited by the Vatican to a meeting on restoring social justice and environmental sustainability to the world economy,” Sanders said in the campaign release. “Pope Francis has made clear that we must overcome ‘the globalization of indifference’ in order to reduce economic inequalities, stop financial corruption and protect the natural environment. That is our challenge in the United States and in the world.”

On the MSNBC show “Morning Joe” Friday morning, Sanders confessed he was “very moved by the invitation.”

“I am a big, big fan of the pope,” the Vermont senator added. “Obviously, there are areas where we disagree, on women’s rights and gay rights. But he has played an unbelievable role — an unbelievable role — of injecting a moral consequence into the economy.”

Sanders said that Francis’ efforts to “liberalize” aspects of the Catholic Church coincide with his own efforts to bring “revolution” to the Democratic Party. “You know, people say Bernie Sanders is radical — read what the pope is writing.” The pope’s most recent missive, however, is much more traditional than radical, encouraging Christian charity in difficult marital circumstances, but nevertheless emphasizing the Catholic Church’s commitment to marital sex and its opposition to gay marriage.

Next Page: Why Catholics matter in the upcoming Democratic primaries.

 According to a 2014 Gallup report, Catholicism accounts for about one quarter of the United States’ population. The five most Catholic states are on the East Coast: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, while the least Catholic states are mostly in the South.

In 2008, Clinton beat Barack Obama in Rhode Island (58 percent to 40 percent), New Jersey (54 percent to 44 percent), Massachusetts (56 percent to 41 percent), and New York (57 percent to 40 percent). The only heavily Catholic state where Clinton lost to Obama was Connecticut (47 percent to Obama’s 51 percent). Nevertheless, Clinton still won Catholics by a 20 percent margin (59 percent to 39 percent)! Even in Obama’s home state of Illinois (the 8th most papist state), which he handily won in the primary, Catholics favored Clinton.

Exit polls on religion for Rhode Island and New Jersey were lacking in 2008, but in Massachusetts and New York Catholic voters propelled Clinton to victory. In Massachusetts, 45 percent of the Democrats identified themselves as Catholic, and Clinton won 64 percent of them, to Obama’s 33 percent. In New York, 37 percent of voters identified as Catholic, and Clinton won 67 percent of them, to Obama’s 30 percent.

Religion seems to be a forgotten issue in the 2016 Democratic primaries. This is very unfortunate, because Illinois and Massachusetts have been remarkably close. Wisconsin, which is tied with California as the seventh most Catholic state, heavily favored Sanders (57 percent to 43 percent).

Most religion exit polls have focused on the Republican side, with Donald Trump winning a whopping 53 percent of Catholics in Massachusetts (where they accounted for 50 percent of the vote). Cruz handily beat Trump in Wisconsin, however, by 13 points (48 to 35 percent). There is little evidence to show how the Catholic vote will go in future Republican contests, as many exit polls focused on the more vague “born again Evangelical Christian” label, which many but not all Catholics adopt. Cruz won these voters handily in Wisconsin.

Of the ten most Catholic states, seven of them are voting in upcoming contests. New York votes April 19, with Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania voting on April 26. New Jersey, New Mexico (number 6), and California (number 7) vote on June 7. If the Catholic vote determines the election in these states — a real possibility in close races between Clinton and Sanders — it may have an impact on 961 delegates in the Democratic race. Because most states divide delegates proportionally, this may not propel Sanders to victory, but if would certainly be impressive for him to win these states by courting Catholic voters.

On the Republican side, these states represent 234 delegates, very close to the division between Trump and Cruz (226). Cruz is unlikely to win all of these states, however, even if he were to court the Catholic vote, because New York is Trump’s home state, and many of these states are much less conservative.

Catholics are becoming more Republican overall, but a sizable bunch are remaining with the Democrats. Ironically, exit polls only focus on religion for Republican primaries, but it is on the Democratic side that Catholics might make the biggest difference.