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HOME > ARTICLES > JUNE 2001

A BALANCED TICKET 1964-1996:
One Protestant, One Catholic
by D. Jason Berggren


One of the most important decisions a presidential nominee makes is choosing a vice-presidential running mate. As CNN political analyst Bill Schneider explained, "That decision always tells voters something important about a candidate. Sometimes something good, sometimes something bad." A nominee's selection of a vice-presidential candidate can give us insight as to how the country will be governed in the next four years, what kinds of qualities he/she values in others, and how the would be president makes critical decisions, such as choosing the person who would be a heartbeat away from the presidency. As George Bush once said about the vice-presidential selection process, it is a "tell all" judgement about the presidential nominee.

When it comes to presidential politics, there are many factors that a presidential nominee cannot control. As Allan Lichtman explains in his book The Keys to the White House, a party's candidate cannot control the automatic power of incumbency, the quadrennial effect of the economy, social unrest, the level of divisiveness within the other party, the results of the last midterm elections, the role of minor parties, and the charisma, character, and policy record of the opponent. One of the few things presidential nominees can control are their choices for vice president. In his attempts to convince Ronald Reagan of the benefits of a Reagan-Ford ticket in 1980, pollster Richard Wirthlin said, "There are a lot of things in politics you cannot control. There are lot of things out there that are handed to you on your platter. But the one thing you have absolute control over is who you ask to be your vice president. This is probably going to be one of the most critical decisions you're going to face." "Sometimes choosing a veep blows up in your face," therefore, as Bruce Morton explained, "at a minimum, you want a running mate who won't hurt you."

Normally, a presidential nominee selects someone who "balances the ticket." That is, the presidential nominee chooses a running mate who has certain qualities that the nominee lacks in order to improve the chances of winning the White House. "Balancing" qualities may include region, race, gender, ethnicity, age, ideology, personality, single-issue positions (e.g. Abortion), and political/military experience. For instance, a presidential nominee may opt for a North South ticket, a male-female ticket, an old-young ticket, a civilian-soldier ticket, an insider-outsider ticket, a domestic policy-foreign policy ticket, or a liberal-conservative ticket. There is, however, another factor or quality in the country's quadrennial ritual of balancing a ticket that may not be as obvious: presidential nominees have also balanced their tickets religiously. The most frequent example of a religiously balanced ticket has been one Protestant, one Catholic. From 1964-1996, almost one-third of a major parties' national tickets was Protestant-Catholic. But this was a late twentieth century development. Most tickets in American history have been Protestant-Protestant.

From 1789 to 1924, the idea of balancing a national party ticket religiously did not occur to the major parties in the sense of having a presidential nominee from one religious tradition and choosing a running mate from another religious tradition. Though the United States has always been the home to a variety of religious beliefs and practices, most Americans have been, and still are, Protestant. When tickets were religiously balanced, they were typically balanced by religiosity, the intensity of one's religious faith. A nominal Protestant Christian may, for instance, choose a Protestant running mate that has solid religious credentials and a reputation of piety. This happened, for instance in 1844. Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay was vulnerable on the character issue. Clay had a reputation of being a "corrupt bargainer", a duelist, a drinker, and a gambler. The national Whig Party convention wanted a vice-presidential nominee to counterbalance Clay's perceived moral shortcomings. They selected "Christian Statesman" Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Frelinghuysen had impeccable religious credentials. He was an officer of the American Temperance Society and a strong supporter of Sunday-closing laws. Most Democrats even conceded that Frelinghuysen's character was "above reproach." During the campaign, Frelinghuysen was given the responsibility of delivering the religious vote for the Whigs.

Throughout the 19th century and on into the 20th century, many Americans considered the United States a Christian country, and this meant a country of, by, and for Protestants. The thought of having a non-Protestant president or vice president was inconceivable and intolerable. From 1789-1924, the major parties only nominated Protestant Christians for president and vice president. All national tickets were Protestant-Protestant. Religious diversity at this time referred only to the diversity within Protestant Christianity. This diversity referred to the various denominations that made up Protestantism, such as Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Quaker, and the Disciples of Christ.

Although the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office and the establishment of religion, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, alternative Protestants (e.g., Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals), "secularists", and atheists had been effectively barred from the country's only two nationally-elected offices. It was not until 1928 that a non-Protestant won a presidential nomination and it was not until 1960 that a non-Protestant won the presidency. To date, no non-Protestant has ever served as vice president.

The reason why it has taken so long for non Protestants to make headway in national politics was many Americans feared that they would destroy the country. Spejcifically, they meant that non Protestants, namely Roman Catholics, would destroy the notion of a Protestant-only America. Many Protestants believed that a Catholic president would take away the religious rights of the Protestant majority, promote anti-social behavior and habits (e.g., intemperate consumption of alcohol), and subordinate the federal government to the pope, the Jesuits, and continental Catholicism. It was believed that Catholic politicians stood for "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" or "Rum, Romanism, and Ruin". Some presidential candidates' Protestant credentials were even questioned. For instance, during the 1856 election, the Republican Party's first presidential nominee, John C. Fremont, was hounded by the "Catholic question". He was repeatedly asked on the campaign trail, "Are you or were you ever a Roman Catholic?"

The first attempt at a religiously balanced ticket was in 1928 when Democrats picked New York Governor Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, as its presidential nominee and Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson, a Protestant, as its vice-presidential nominee. But the country was not ready for a Catholic-Protestant ticket. The experiment was an electoral disaster. The Smith-Robinson ticket won only 87 electoral votes and 41% of the popular vote. It would be another thirty-two years before one of the two major parties would attempt to field another religiously balanced ticket.

In 1960, the Democrats tried it again. They chose Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, as its presidential nominee and Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, a Protestant, as the vice presidential nominee. This time, it worked. The religion glass ceiling for the highest offices in the United States was cracked. Kennedy's victory signaled that the United States had by-in-large put away its anti-Catholic, "Know-Nothing" past. The days of Catholic politicians being associated with such words as "foreign", "alien", "conspiracy", "tyranny", or "dual allegiance" were all but over. Henceforth, the two major parties would routinely consider fielding "true" religiously balanced tickets. Since Kennedy, the principal religious-balancing act in the late twentieth century was Protestant presidential nominees choosing Roman Catholic running mates. The major parties would not add one's religion to the laundry list of criteria for choosing a vice president in the effort of appealing to the Catholic vote or the Jewish vote. In the past, one's religion kept one off the national ticket. By the end of the twentieth century, one's religion could earn one a spot on it.

Kennedy's win meant many things to the country, but for the purposes of this article, it has meant two important changes to the way vice presidents are selected by their parties and elected by the people. First, Kennedy's win showed that the Protestant majority of the United States had moved beyond the religious exclusivism of yesteryear and was willing to have non-Protestants as its president or vice president. Second, Kennedy's win affected the way future presidential nominees would select their running mates.

Some may believe that as a result of the 1960 election religion no longer matters in the nomination or election process for president and vice president. Some may say that it no longer matters if one is Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or Jewish. Some may say that there are no more de facto "religious tests" for political office. Some may say that "the religion question" is now dead. Those who believe this are partially right. The post-Kennedy reality is that religion does and does not matter.

Since 1960, religion paradoxically matters in the electoral process. Americans want religion to play a role in U.S. Politics and Americans do not want religion to play a role in U.S. Politics. Americans tend to hold these views simultaneously. One could say that Americans have an ambivalent opinion on the public role of religion.

On the one hand, Americans say one's religion should not matter in the sense that a candidates' religious views or religious affiliation should not automatically disqualify him/her from winning the White House, the vice presidency, or a party's nomination. At the national level, Kennedy's hope for a day "when no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him" has been largely realized. The Gallup Poll Organization reported in March 1999 that only about 5% of Americans would not vote for a person because of his/her Catholic/Jewish faith. This figure is remarkable considering that in 1937, when Gallup first asked respondents if they would vote for a Catholic/Jewish president, 30% of Americans would not vote for a Catholic for president and 47% would not vote for a candidate who was Jewish. Americans, however, are still not ready for an atheist. Almost 50% of Americans would not vote for someone who is an atheist.

On the other hand, some presidential nominees seek to balance their tickets religiously either to forge a ticket that mirrors the country's religious diversity or to demonstrate his/her embrace of religious pluralism. Some presidential nominees may choose a running mate from a different faith in the hope of carrying that religious constituency. Nevertheless, regardless of motive, Catholic and Orthodox Christians and Jews, along with Protest Christians, are now given serious consideration as potential presidential and vice-presidential candidates. In the post-Kennedy era of U.S. Politics, the national Democratic and Republican tickets have tried to reflect the country's new spirit of religious pluralism. Beginning with the 1964 election, there have been thirteen Protestant-Protestant tickets, five Protestant-Catholic tickets, and one Orthodox Protestant ticket.

Although the Protestant Protestant formula still dominates, the fact that one-third of the national tickets since the Johnson-Goldwater race have not been exclusively Protestant suggests that after Kennedy's victory the Unites States had indeed entered into an age of religious pluralism. Catholics were now welcomed in an area that was once reserved for Protestants.

The effects of Kennedy's victory on the vice presidential selection process were immediate. Increasingly, non-Protestant political leaders were among those who were seriously considered for vice president. But the formula that was to prevail was Protestant-Catholic. For three straight presidential elections 1964-1972, at least one of the major party's national ticket was religiously balanced with one Protestant, one Catholic.

In 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater chose New York Representative William Miller to be his running mate, making him the first Catholic vice-presidential nominee of a major party. The Democrats also flirted with fielding a religiously balanced ticket in 1964. According to Life magazine (May 1964), Lyndon Johnson was considering Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff as a possible running mate. This would have been the first Protestant-Jewish ticket. The magazine, however, noted that there were some concerns in the Johnson campaign that the country may not be ready for a Jewish vice president.

In 1968, Richard Nixon was once again the Republican presidential nominee. Republicans were divided over who should be Nixon's running mate. Conservatives wanted someone like Ronald Reagan or John Tower. Liberals offered the names of John Lindsay, Mark Hatfield, and Charles Percy. Neither faction would embrace the other's VP favorites. For nixon, the choice came down to either Massachusetts Governor John Volpe or Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew. Volpe was a Roman Catholic and Agnew was a Greek-American who was raised Greek Orthodox, but converted to Episcopalianism. Nixon ultimately picked Agnew. Another notable of the 1968 Republican vice-presidential selection process was a Mormon was seriously considered for the first time- -Michigan Governor George Romney.

The dream ticket for some Democrats in 1968 was Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a Protestant, and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, A Catholic. Kennedy's assassination, however, did not alter the Protestant-Catholic formula for 1968. Out of Humphrey's top three choices for vice president, two were Roman Catholic: Maine Senator Edmund Muskie and New Jersey Governor Richard Hughes. Humphrey eventually tapped Muskie as his running mate. According to Theodore White, Hubert Huphrey chose Muskie partially because Muskie was a Polish Catholic. "Like [Spiro] Agnew, Muskie had been selected partly for his 'ethnic appeal.' " Chicago Mayor Richard Daley pushed for Sargent Shriver because he was "a Catholic, Midwesterner, a Kennedy brother-in-law."

In the 1972 election, White also noted that one of the reasons why George McGovern wanted Tom Eagleton as his running mate was because the Missouri Senator was Catholic. "Symbolically Eagleton promises everything- -Catholic; young; bright; witty' good connections with labor; big-city background; firm on law-and-order." Eagleton, however, did not work out. After proclaiming that he was behind his choice 1,000%, McGovern dumped Eagleton from the ticket after it was revealed that he had a psychiatric history. Seemingly determined to have a Catholic run with him, McGovern selected Mayor Daley's 1968 favorite Sargent Shriver.

For the 1976 and 1980 elections, the two major parties returned to the Protestant-Protestant formula of the past maybe because the Protestant-Catholic experiments of 1964, 1968, and 1972 were electoral busts. But in 1984, the Democrats attempted again to show the viability of a Protestant-Catholic ticket.

Walter Mondale, the party's presidential nominee, seemed determined to make political history; he wanted a woman to serve as his vice president. The two finalists were Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. Ferraro's Catholicism may have been the deciding factor. According to Bob Beckel, Mondale's campaign manager, the Democrats conceded the South to Reagan just as Gerald Ford had conceded it to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Instead, the Democratic strategy in 1984 would be a Midwest-Northeast strategy. Beckel believed that in order to beat Reagan Mondale would have to sweep the Rust Belt states and New England. In order to do that, Mondale would have to win the Catholic vote. "When you talk about the Northeast and the upper tier Midwest you talk ethnic, and when you talk ethnic you talk Catholic." Ferraro was female, from the Northeast, an Italian-American, and Roman Catholic- -the right Democratic vice-presidential credentials in 1984.

In 1988, Democrats made Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis their presidential nominee. Dukakis made history by becoming the first Orthodox Christian to win a major party's presidential nomination and the third non-Protestant. Hoping to imitate Kennedy's path to victory in 1960, Dukakis also picked a Protestant Texan to be his running mate, Senator Lloyd Bentsen. The first Orthodox Protestant ticket and the second "Boston-Austin axis", however, failed.

The Republicans did not seriously consider a religiously balanced ticket again until 1996. In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole strongly considered several Roman Catholics for the vice presidential spot: Governor John Engler of Michigan, Senator Connie Mack of Florida, Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Governor George Voinovich of Ohio. In the days preceding the San Diego Convention, the St. Petersburg Times said Senator Mack would bring the following advantages to the Republican ticket: "strong advocate of tax cuts to stimulate the economy", "would boost ticket in Florida and surround states", "Roman Catholic", and "name recognition: grandfather was a baseball legend". In the end, Dole went with someone who had national appeal and could potentially generate some excitement- -Jack Kemp, a former pro-football quarterback, a former congressman, a former Bush cabinet member, and conservative ideologue.

After losing three straight presidential elections in a landslide, the Democratic Party in the 1990s wanted to be "new." They decided to forego the geographic/Demographic balancing acts of the past. There would be no symbolic gestures or overtures. The national ticket this time would not "look like America." Democrats wanted to win.

Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton won the nomination in 1992. He was young, brilliant, from the South, a Washington outsider, a moderate, and a Southern Baptist. For vice president, Clinton chose someone who was like himself- -Tennessee Senator Al Gore. Both were southerners, baby boomers, "new" Democrats, and Southern Baptists. The one major balancing quality that Gore brought to the ticket was his Vietnam War experience. The Clinton-Gore ticket of 1992-1996 defied the traditional rules of balancing a national ticket- -and still won. The Clinton-Gore victories proved that balanced tickets do not win elections.

In their time, presidential nominees Barry Goldwater, Hubert humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale believed that a religiously balanced presidential ticket made symbolic and strategic sense. For them, it was symbolically sensible to have a Roman Catholic on the ticket. They believe that by having a Roman Catholic on the ticket they would increase their chances of winning the Catholic vote. They were wrong; all four lost.

The Catholic vote is important; presidential candidates have to court Catholics. The reasons are simple. The first reason is the sheer size of the Catholic vote. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious denomination in the United States and Roman Catholics makeup about 25% of the American electorate. Roman Catholics also constitute a majority in three states (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut) and a plurality in twenty-five other states.

The second reason is location. More than 50% of the Catholic vote is located in the Northeast and the Midwest, and 25% of Catholics are in the electorally rich states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois alone. One could refer to these states as the "Catholic Corridor." Using electoral numbers for the 2000 election, the "Catholic Corridor" is worth 99 votes or more than one-third of the 270 votes needed to become president. These states are not only coveted for their electoral wealth, but because they tend to be "bellwether" states. "Bellwether states" are states noted for their ability to pick the next president. From 1980-1996, the "Catholic Corridor" voted as a bloc and voted for the winner each time.

Finally, the Catholic vote is worth courting because it is a swing, "bellwether" constituency. Unlike Jewish voters that vote overwhelmingly Democratic and evangelical Protestant voters that vote overwhelmingly Republican, Roman Catholic voters tend to split their vote. This is probably due to the fact that "many views of Catholics do not fit neatly with those of either of our major political parties." Catholics voters tend to be centrists. On the whole, Catholic voters are more conservative than Jewish voters and they are more liberal than evangelical voters. They tend to simultaneously support an activist government in economic matters (Democratic tendency) and in moral matters (Republican tendency). One might say that Catholics are "compassionate conservatives."

Historically, whoever wins the Catholic vote tends to win the White House. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Catholics picked the winner each time. They voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan twice, George Bush in 1988, and Bill Clinton twice. In other words, win the Catholic vote, win the presidency. But does this mean that one has to put a Catholic on the ticket in order to win the Catholic vote? Definitely not. Mondale did not win the Catholic vote with Ferraro, McGovern did not win the Catholic vote with Eagleton/Shriver, and Goldwater did not win the Catholic vote with Miller. Hence, none of them because president. American Catholics will not simply vote for a "Catholic" president or a "Catholic" vice president. They will, however, vote for a ticket that appears to stand for "Catholic" values. Religion matters and it does not matter.

Electorally speaking, it is well-known that vice presidential candidates do not count for much. We have all heard the political adage that one does not determine his/her vote on vice-presidential candidates. Richard Nixon and George Bush were able to survive their questionable selections of Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle. A good vice-presidential pick may not electorally advance the cause of a presidential candidate in the sense of delivering his/her state or region for the nominee. If nothing else, a good pick may show that the presidential nominee is competent, a good judge of character and ability, or that he/she is a consensus/coalition builder. A bad vice-presidential selection, however, can be disastrous for a presidential candidate. It can confirm voters' fears that the nominee is too extreme, that the nominee is controlled by special interests, that the nominee is not a good judge of character and qualifications, or that the nominee is indecisive and equivocal.

Many past presidential candidates believed that vice-presidential choices have symbolic importance. For them, geography and demographics matter. Therefore, religion matters when choosing a vice president. Candidates such a Goldwater, Humphrey, McGovern, and Mondale believed that when they picked a roman Catholic running mate they were sending voters a message: "I am not a religious bigot, I am pro-Catholic." But the successes of the Reagan-Bush and Clinton-Gore tickets showed that a ticket does not have to be religiously balanced in order to win various religious constituencies. Ronald Reagan and George Bush won among mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, and Roman Catholics. They also won more than 30% of the Jewish vote. The all-Southern Baptist ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the Catholic and Jewish vote in 1992 and 1996. A candidate's personal religion does not matter in the quest for the White House.

Prior to 1960, only one Roman Catholic appeared on a presidential ticket. John Kennedy's win in 1960 changed that (Table 5). Although Al Smith was the first Catholic presidential nominee, there was not a "Smith effect." From 1932-1956, every Democratic and Republican ticket was Protestant-Protestant. There was, however, a "Kennedy effect." Kennedy's win gave Catholic politicians national viability. Kennedy's win also opened the door for other non-Protestants.

There were six religiously balanced national tickets between 1964 and 1996. Five-of-the-six were one Protestant, one Catholic (1964, 1968, 1972 twice, and 1984), that is, more than one-third of the major parties' national tickets. From 1964-1972, it was standard practice for Democrats and Republicans to either have or seriously consider a Protestant-Catholic ticket. It was tried again in 1984. In 1988, the first Orthodox-Protestant ticket was fielded. In 1964 and 1984, a Protestant-Jewish ticket was entertained. Interestingly, the Democratic Party fielded five out of the six religiously balanced tickets and 50% of their vice-presidential nominees from 1964-1996 were Roman Catholic. That is the Kennedy legacy.

It is interesting, and somewhat surprising, that Democrats would make religion an issue. Conventional wisdom says that religion is a Republican thing. According to a January 2000 ABC News poll, 57% of Democrats do not think presidential candidates should talk about religion on the campaign trail, but 58% of Republicans think they should. Nevertheless, it appears that since 1964 Democratic nominees and campaign strategists will consider one's religious affiliation when seeking to balance their party's national ticket. It goes to show that the role of religion in American politics is relative. Republicans are more likely to use religious rhetoric on the campaign trail, put God in their platform, and discuss their personal relationship with Jesus. Democrats are more likely to recognize the country's religious diversity through political appointment. Republican use of religion is more overt and Democratic use is more covert. The inescapable fact is this: both major parties mix religion and politics, they just mix them differently.

The United States is no longer a Protestant-only country. Since Kennedy, more Roman Catholics have run for president, five have been chosen as running mates, and more than ever, Roman Catholics are being placed on presidential nominees' VP short lists. In the American past, it may have been fashionable to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic. In the post-Kennedy era, a presidential candidate must embrace the four cornerstones of American religion: Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox-Jewish. From 1948 1998, American Jews transformed congressional elections into a tri-faith reality. From 1964-1996, the vice presidential nomination process was transformed into a bi-faith reality: Protestant Catholic. Though the American political system is a long way from reflecting the way the country looks, it is steadily reaching the point of reflecting the way the country worships.

(D. Jason Berggren is an adjunct professor of religion at Broward Community College in Pembroke Pines, Florida.)

Suggested Reading

Byrnes, Timothy A. Catholic Bishops in American Politics, 1991.
Carwardine, Richard J. Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum Americana, 1993.
Coughlan, Robert. "The Religious Issue: An Un American Heritage." Life (July 4, 1960).
Gailey, Philip. "A mate to run with rather than from." St. Petersburg Times (4 August 1996).
Lichtman, Allan J. The Keys to the White House, 1996.
Morton, Bruce. "The Does and Dont's of Choosing a Running Mate." CNN Video Report (30 May 2000).
Newport, Frank. "Americans Today Much More Accepting of a Woman, Black, Catholic, or Jew as President." Gallup Poll Organization. (March 1999).
Schneider, William. "Running mates make and break campaigns." National Journal (July 1996).
White, Theodore H. The Making of the President, 1968, 1969.
_______. The Making of the President, 1972, 1973.
Will, George F. "Why Not Make It a Real Job? Newsweek (14 March 1988).

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