Transcription – Leonard Leo Interview

Q: Well, you mentioned President Bush’s eventual opponent, John Kerry, being a practicing Catholic as well. What were the conversations like, what was the strategy about competing against someone who is practicing, claims to be practicing the faith that you’re also advising on? I mean how — what did that look like? How did that work? Were there specific issues you decided to target?

LEO: First of all, the president rightly would never criticize Kerry [12:00] for his lack of Catholicity in terms of his perspectives. I mean, that wasn’t going to happen, that wasn’t the president. And he wasn’t going to do that, and he shouldn’t have done it, and didn’t. So it was going to be incumbent upon other people to point out the contrast, and that was what the Catholic outreach effort needed to do. And it needed to do it in a way that again, appealed to faithful Catholics, Mass-attending Catholics, who understood what our duty as Catholics is. And so, of course the really big issue was abortion. And all of those other culture of life issues, stem cell, you know, euthanasia, other sanctity of life issues. And so, those were the ones that were [13:00] touted most often, right? And with good reason. And so, you know, John Kerry had a fairly radical position on these issues. I mean he was in favor basically of abortion on demand. And so it was not hard to paint a picture of him that was so at odds with Catholic teaching. Now what they tried to do, on the Democrat side, was what we called the seamless garment theory, which is basically “Oh, look, you know, to be a Catholic public figure, you know, you have to embrace a broad sense of compassion that captures lots of different issues. So it’s not just about abortion, it’s about [14:00] compassion towards your fellow man in terms of making sure that everyone has what they need to survive in life, a fair wage, a job, you know, a safety net to take care of people who are in need, right?” Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, you know, so the seamless — and that all of these issues, right, so health, nutrition, housing, abortion, marriage, education, they’re all on a level plane. It’s the seamless garment. And that was the way the Kerry campaign tried to communicate his Catholicity. So, what we had to do on our side was find ways of debunking [15:00] that theological approach. That there is, in fact, a hierarchy of values and issues. There are what we call non-negotiable issues, and those are the five culture of life issues, right? So marriage, abortion, euthanasia, you know, being among them. And then there are the negotiable issues, things where Catholics can agree to disagree on the particulars of how to implement. So welfare policy, right? Or education policy. So that was the message that had to be projected, which is, you know, there’s culture of life, dignity of the human person, those are non-negotiable issues. Game, set, match. All the other issues, you can [16:00] have a fair debate about. And so that’s the point we had to make. And of course, we had to be delicate about it, we had to make it in a way that, you know, it didn’t seem like the president was pontificating about, you know, what it means to be a Catholic, and what issues are negotiable and not negotiable. So quite often, it was incumbent upon the Catholic outreach effort to find third-party surrogates, independent people, you know, who could go out there and project this message without it coming directly from us. And much of what we did was frankly, you know, engage outside individuals and groups to go off on their own initiative and to sort of, you know, project the right messages.

Q: So you worked with RNC also, I guess on a broader scope than just President Bush’s campaign. Did these issues come up, not just [17:00] in the presidential election, but in I guess specific Congressional elections or Senate elections? And I guess to tie into that, maybe you could speak a little — you spoke about the culture of life, and then you mentioned also the marriage issue, and that was the year where same-sex marriage began to come up on state ballots.

LEO: Yeah.

Q: So, did you have any particular involvement or thoughts on how those intersected in those states with both the presidential campaign and also the Congressional campaign?

LEO: We spent, in 2004, very, very little time on the Congressional side of the equation. I can’t even remember doing much of anything. It was almost exclusively the presidential effort. I think the idea was basically that if we could, you know, if Bush could carry, you know, very well and very strongly, there’d be coattails. So we didn’t waste — spend is probably a better word, didn’t spend a lot of our time thinking about [18:00] the Congressional races. And so we focused mainly on the presidential race. The issues were largely abortion and courts. To some extent, freedom of religion. And education. Not marriage. In fact, I can’t remember marriage being much of an issue in ’04. I can’t explain why, but it just wasn’t. [19:00] Interestingly, and I think this says a lot about President Bush and his commitment to these issues in his great strategic sense regarding Catholics, interestingly, and I was still chairman of RNC Catholic outreach in 2006, right, which was the midterm election, and I’ve got to tell you, the Catholic outreach effort then was abysmal. The RNC did not leverage the Catholic movement, the faithful Catholic movement in 2006. It didn’t. And so, I really do think that there was something very unique and important about the president’s commitment to the Catholic voter project.

Q: Well, what’s your [20:00] assessment of it, having been — you know, having worked on it, been a strategist for it, having — and then just told us about how powerful it was, particularly to the president. What’s your assessment of how well that worked, or in what particular ways it worked? Do you know of any measurable ways (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)?

LEO: The faithful Catholic vote was extraordinarily important in 2004. I think a very strong argument can be made that the president won a couple of states because of faithful Catholic voters. In particular, Iowa, I know was one state. New Hampshire, Florida, these are states where we saw significant surges in [21:00] the faithful Catholic vote in 2004. And in fact, if you look at 2008, McCain, Obama’s margins of victory in these states that I’ve referenced and others, his margin of victory is often less than the migration of faithful Catholic voters from Republicans back to Democrats. So, there’s a clear, I think in a number of these states, pretty clear evidence that faithful Catholic voters were, if not decisive, certainly a major factor. Certainly a major factor. [22:00] Not on every state, but certainly in probably of the nine key battleground states, probably at least three, maybe as many as four or five.

Q: That’s great.

LEO: So, OK.

Q: Thank you.

Leonard Leo Interview, Center for Presidential History, Southern Methodist University, The Election of 2004 Collective Memory Project, 2 January 2014, accessed at

Transcription services provided for your convenience by the Audio Transcription Center, of Boston, MA. In all circumstances, audio and video remain the definitive version. Please contact with any discrepancies or comments.