In Search of the Catholic Vote

By Tegan A. Culler
Autumn 2000

According to the Catholic Almanac 2000, Catholics comprise 22.7 percent of the U.S. population. Catholics are also concentrated in key electoral states; notably, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, and California are each at least 24 percent Catholic. In political terms, this makes Catholics an extremely significant group within the American electorate, and one that has the potential to swing the election. In fact, no Democrat has ever become president without capturing at least half the votes of American Catholics.

This raises key questions: Will the way Catholics have voted in the past translate to the upcoming election? Are Republican and Democratic leaders targeting Catholic voters specifically? And can they target Catholics? How much of a role does voters’ Catholicism play in how they vote? Is there a Catholic vote?

To address these issues, Conscience interviewed several leading political scientists, sociologists, and pollsters. Tom Smith is the director of the General Social Survey for the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. James Kelly, a professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York, most recently published “Consistently Pro-Life?” in the April 1, 2000 edition of America Magazine. Celinda Lake is a Democratic pollster and the president of Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, a public research and opinion firm based in Washington, DC. Scott Keeter is professor of government and politics and chair of the department of public and international affairs at George Mason University, an election night analyst of exit polls for NBC News, and co-author of three books, including The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American PoliticsJohn Russonellois a partner in the Democratic public opinion research firm of Belden, Russonello and Stewart in Washington, D.C.


Conscience: What trends have occurred among Catholic voters since the 1960s, particularly during the last several elections?

Tom Smith: In 1968 and 1972, Catholics were 12 to 13 percentage points more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate than for the Republican candidate. That fell to between 2 and 4 percentage points between 1980 and 1992. And then we had an uptake in 1996, when the edge reached 7 percentage points again.

If you look at party identification, the Democratic lead here has declined quite substantially. In polls from the 1970s, 51 percent of Catholics identified as Democrats, and only 14 percent identified as Republicans. That difference shrunk in the 1980s to 42 percent of Catholics identifying as Democrats and 23 percent identifying as Republicans-still a notable edge, but smaller. By the 90s, Democratic identification fell to 36 percent and Republican identification grew to 26.5 percent. So it shifts and slips from more than a 30 percent point identification edge to just under a 10 percent edge. The partisan identification edge has remained larger or stronger than the voting edge; Catholics show a greater edge in their identification as Democrats than they do in their voting patterns for Democrats for president.

James Kelly: Until the 1980s, to be baptized Catholic was also to be a Democrat, people said. There was a sense that government’s role was to help people, and a sense that American society stood for equality-and that equality had an economic dimension to it. This meant that Catholics had a strong predisposition to identify with the Democratic Party. There’s always enormous differentiation within Catholicism, though: in early immigrant Catholicism, Italian males and Germans were far less likely to vote Democratic.

Since the 1980s, you find less identification with the Democratic Party. More educated Catholics than white Protestants identify with the Democratic Party, and you’ll find that those Catholics are still more likely than white Protestants to think that the government has a role in addressing social problems, especially problems of economic inequality. But the identification with the Democratic Party has lessened, especially among the young and the second generation post-Vatican II.

Celinda Lake: Catholic voters were once a core staple of Democratic support, but they became much more Republican during the 1980s-in fact Catholics were a large part of the Reagan Democrats. Since Reagan, they’ve drifted back towards the Democratic Party.

Scott Keeter: In our analysis of the impact of religion on politics, we distinguish between committed Catholics and other Catholics, because we find that understanding the role of religion in politics necessitates some taking into account of the degree of religious commitment. We look at this both in terms of attitudinal strength (the importance an individual ascribes to religion in her or his everyday life) and a behavioral strength (frequency of attendance at religious services, regular private prayer). Increasingly, the stories about committed Catholics and other Catholics are different.

Among committed Catholics, the current population actually mirrors the overall American public, in terms of its partisanship, its ideology and positions on the issues. Less-committed Catholics have become a little bit more conservative and a little more Republican, but not to the same extent as committed Catholics. Right now, less-committed Catholics are 47 percent Democratic, and 45 percent lean towards the Republicans. Among Committed Catholics, it’s 45 percent Democrat and 47 percent Republican.

John Russonello: The Catholic vote, particularly the white Catholic vote, is probably the best definition of a swing vote of any identifiable group in the county. If you look at voting patterns, the only real identifiable group that from year to year does swing-by swing I mean supporting one party’s candidate one year for president, supporting another party’s candidate another year for president-is white Catholics. Catholics supported the Democratic candidate in 1980 and the Republican candidate in 1984. They were about evenly split in 1988, and in 1992 they supported the Democratic candidate. In 1996, they strongly supported the Democrats again. In most of these five elections, the Catholic vote was on the side of the person who won the presidency.


Conscience: Do American Catholics vote as a bloc today, with religion outweighing other significant factors like race, class, region, age and gender?

Tom Smith: It’s a pretty weak bloc-in fact, it’s probably not even appropriate to speak of it as a bloc, because their voting edge isn’t strong enough. In both identification and vote, they do lean more toward the Democratic Party, but the edge is too slight to be called a bloc. For example, in terms of identification and vote, African Americans are about 90 percent Democratic. You can call them a bloc. Jews, in most elections, vote about 70 percent Democratic-with a 40 percentage point edge, they can be called a bloc. But the biggest edge in the last 20 years among Catholics is only about seven percentage points in the presidential elections, and that’s not a bloc.

Other issues clearly make a difference, but socioeconomic status is probably the biggest factor. If you are Catholic and middle-class or above, you are going to be much more likely to go with the Republican Party than if you are Catholic and working class or below. Hispanic Catholics are generally a pretty solid Democratic group, but then again, Bush did very well among Hispanics in Texas in the last election. For most Catholics, I would say that their faith would be several rungs down in terms of the demographic factors that most likely shape their votes.

James Kelly: Roughly, 30 to 32 percent of Catholics will say that they’re registered Democrats, about 28 percent to 30 percent will say they are registered Republicans, and the rest are independents. So there’s no bloc. And Hispanic voters, as Catholics, are certainly different from other Catholic voters. As an overall tendency, I’d say Catholics, like everybody else, will vote according to which political candidate seems to promise to continue the current prosperity. Abortion, for example, will be explicitly important to less than 10 percent of the voting population. And of that, probably six percent will go prolife and three percent will go prochoice. And so in an election-and it would have to be a very close election-that one issue would only make a difference of 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent.

Celinda Lake: No, Catholics do not vote as a bloc. I would make a big distinction between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics here, and of course Hispanics have become a bigger proportion of the vote in the United States. Hispanic Catholics are not nearly as prochoice as white Catholics. So Catholics are not monolithic at all; they vary by race significantly, and then by age and gender and all the other variables.

Scott Keeter: The very fact that the Catholic vote is not entirely predictable now is one reason why it is a very highly cultivated by politicians. In contrast to African Americans, whose vote is often taken for granted by the Democrats, Catholics are not taken for granted by either party. There are obvious efforts made to try to get them. We worked with one survey in which the questions were asked: “Has anybody contacted you and asked you to consider voting for a particular candidate? Has anybody contacted you and asked you to work on behalf of a particular candidate?” We found that committed Catholics have become the target of the largest efforts to mobilize them politically of all the groups in the population.

John Russonello: I don’t usually use the term voting bloc, because it suggests that people in the bloc, the definable group, are rigid. No, I don’t think the Catholic vote is a bloc vote, in that sense, but I do think that it is an interesting identifiable group that represents some common themes culturally.

When we discuss the Catholic vote, it’s a less reference to a religious group than a discussion of a group of people in the country who are identifiable by their cultural characteristics. Only about half of Catholics attend church regularly and could be considered religious, but many more people than just those who attend church identify themselves as Catholics. Generally, the white Catholic vote is people of German, Italian, and Irish descent in the cities and older suburbs. A small percentage of that vote-like a small percentage of the Protestant vote, the Jewish vote, or other religions-will consider how a candidate impacts their religious beliefs. When we talk about “appealing to the Catholic vote,” however, we’re talking about appealing to issues that will resonate with ethnic voters in the cities and older suburbs: health care, economic security, education, social security.


Conscience: To what extent do the legislative priorities of the bishops’ lobby tend to be reflected among the Catholic electorate?

Tom Smith: What little research I have seen on this issue indicates that with the exception of a few high-profile issues, such as abortion, Catholic voters are not well informed about the church’s position. And the church’s position, for quite understandable reasons, on things such as poverty and international peace and so on, are presented in a non-campaign-type format, so as a group the bishops don’t say, “our position on the poor means you should vote for Gore.” And without someone stating that kind of explicit connection, a lot of Catholics are not going to make the connection.

James Kelly: If you look at highly reflective political analysis, such as that done by Network or Pax Christi, the bishops’ priorities are very barely reflected by either political party. However, overall, the social justice issues are prioritized far more by the Democratic Party. In terms of the grassroots level, I think that you can take it much more as a rule of thumb that in parish life, where most people absorb and experience their Catholicism, there’s very rarely an explicit political theme. Very rarely does the public voice of Catholicism and its political implications reach ordinary people. But it depends a whole lot on the place and the time, or even an individual bishop.

Celinda Lake: Well, Catholics have a lot of different views, but, for example, the Catholic electorate is less anti-government than some other groups, like the fundamentalist Christian sector. So you see Catholics being pretty supportive of government programs-the Medicare prescription drug benefit is a big issue with Catholic voters. Part of that is who they are demographically other than Catholic. For example, the Northeast is heavily Democratic, so Catholics in the Northeast tend to be more Democratic than Catholics in the South. I think part of it is also that the orientation of Catholic voters is not particularly against big institutions, for obvious reasons. There’s more of a collective sense among Catholic voters. Individualistic libertarian candidates don’t traditionally do well among Catholic voters. Ross Perot never did very well among Catholic voters, for example. But again, I think that a lot of the differences among Catholic voters are more reflective of region, or gender, or some of the other differences, rather than of being Catholic.

Scott Keeter: We don’t have good survey data on all of the bishops’ legislative priorities, but if you look at Catholic voters overall, lumping the committed and the less-committed together, the Catholic electorate looks very much like the overall public-not like the bishops. The Catholic electorate is probably closer to the bishops on issues of economic social justice than it is on social issues like abortion, the role of women, and the like.

John Russonello: I think the agenda of the Catholic bishops is one that is only heard by those Catholics who attend Mass regularly, and even they will only hear it at certain times. When we think of the Catholic vote, we don’t think of appealing to voters on the basis of the bishops’ concerns, though there is a small segment of the Catholic vote that pays close attention to the bishops.

There are some commonalities that Catholics share with the bishops’ agenda, however. For example, Catholics have been consistently in favor of arms control; Catholics tend to favor the death penalty less than other groups in society. But while there are points of intersection between the Catholic electorate’s views and the bishops’ agenda, I don’t view it as a cause-and-effect relationship.


Conscience: In your opinion, has the prochoice stance of the Democratic Party alienated Catholic voters?

Tom Smith: Actually, I think it would be a net gain for the Democrats, in that that stance attracts more Catholics than it deters-though, undoubtedly some Catholics have been put off by it. Only about 10 percent of Catholics (and Protestants) can be considered to be ideologically or solidly prolife. About 30 percent can be considered to be ideologically or completely prochoice, and the majority of Catholics and Protestants are in the middle: They support abortion for some reasons, they oppose it for others.

In their attitudes toward abortion, Catholics very much resemble moderate Protestants, and they also very much resemble the average of all Protestants put together, and are not distinctly prolife. Many Catholics are clearly out of tune with the church on this issue, in terms of its formal doctrine-which isn’t surprising, because when you look at a number of other issues dealing with sexuality and reproduction, the Catholic laity is quite at odds with the church, birth control being the clearest example. The ability of Catholics to disagree with the church on the abortion issue and not feel that they have to leave the church is partly because they feel even more comfortable on the related issue of birth control.

James Kelly: I think it has, but you’d have to be careful when you say how much. For example, there is a sense that to be Catholic with any misgivings about abortion disqualifies you from high Democratic influence. At the same time, though, those people are not particularly at home in the Republican Party either. Among really knowledgeable Catholics, there’s probably a strong sense that they really can’t support the Republicans, but there’s a lack of enthusiasm for the Democrats. So it’s more of a quiet decision-making than any real political energy with regard to the Democratic Party. On the other hand, among the Catholic neo-conservatives, of which there are many, there do remain energies with regard to the Republican Party. So, the highly educated Catholic elite with a strong attachment to their religion have a lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic party, but they will probably vote for them anyway. However, that’s a loss that should not be forgotten.

Celinda Lake: No, abortion is not alienating Catholic voters. For one thing, Catholics have gotten significantly more prochoice, particularly Catholic women. It’s now upwards of 61 percent of Catholic women who are prochoice. They’ve gotten significantly less deferential to the church for their choice position, and there are significantly fewer single-issue prolife voters among the Catholic voters. Single-issue abortion voters are now almost exclusively born-again, fundamentalist Christians.

Scott Keeter: The answer is a cautious yes. I think that the prochoice stance of the Democrats has served as one among many reasons why many committed Catholics have moved away from the Democratic party starting in the late 1960s and early 70s. The growing influence of what some people saw as the counterculture on the Democratic party, and its adoption of liberal positions on social issues alienated many more traditional Catholics, but it wouldn’t be right to say that abortion was either the only or the most important factor here. It’s really a cluster of things that fall into two categories. On social issues like attitudes towards crime, abortion, violence on TV, the role of women, and so forth, committed people of all faiths have found themselves more and more alienated from what they perceived to be the Democratic Party’s views on these issues. The other cluster of issues that has driven people away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans are social welfare issues. There was a sense of an increasing mismatch between what the government was doing to help people in need and the question of whether those people either deserved help or whether it was really effective. A significant number of Catholics, like many people, especially Protestants in the South, became increasingly disenchanted with the welfare state and saw the Republicans as being more to their liking ideologically on that issue.

John Russonello: I don’t think there’s any evidence that Democratic candidates are alienated from the Catholic vote because of the abortion issue. The data speaks for itself: Catholic voters voted for Clinton 55 percent over 35 percent for Dole in 1996. While church-going Catholics are somewhat more aligned with the church’s position on abortion, in poll upon poll, Catholics as a whole are really no different from other Americans on this issue.


Conscience: Is the effort by the Republican Party to address poverty issues at the Republican National Convention this summer a sign that they are trying to court Catholic voters by speaking their language?

Tom Smith: I believe the Republican Party was more consciously invested in bringing Catholics into the Republican Party in the 1980s-the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” Among other reasons, they were supposedly attracted to the Republican Party because they had conservative family values. There’s also the argument that they were attracted to the Republican Party because many were now third- or fourth-generation and were middle-class and college educated, and so socioeconomically they were moving from being working-class Democrats to being middle-class Republicans. In the 1990s, and now, Catholics do not seem to be a group that Republicans are consciously targeting. I don’t know for what reason, but I certainly saw a lot more Republican strategists talking about targeting the Catholic segment of the population in the 1980s than in the 1990s or today.

James Kelly: You could say that the “compassionate conservative” theme by Marvin Olafsky is a rendering of the notion of subsidiarity-he himself says that it is. That, plus the Bush emphasis on working with religious-based outreach programs for single women, poor people, drug addicts and all the other marginalized groups. That’s an enormously attractive package. In any sophisticated analysis of the Catholic vote, those people who say that their Catholicism is most important to them and those people who are most likely to attend Mass are also the people most likely to identify with social justice themes, such as option for the poor and economic equality. This is another reason why I think the election will be so difficult to call, because those people will be torn between the very pale Democratic vision of economic equality and then the respect for Catholicism, for traditionalism, that you find in the Bush campaign.

Celinda Lake: No, I think it was a sign that they are trying to court voters of color and women.

Scott Keeter: I don’t think it’s aimed at Catholics in particular. From the perspective of George W. Bush, I think it’s an effort to try and soften the image of the party. Not that it’s insincere on his part, but it is also a reflection of the fact that the Republican Party has gotten the image, justly or not, of being insensitive to the needs of the downtrodden. I see it as an effort on his part to change that image, but not necessarily because of the potential Catholic vote.

John Russonello: I think the Republican Party is trying to court Catholic voters to the extent that they are courting voters who live in cities and older suburbs–where many Catholics live–who care about helping others, which is clearly a part of Catholicism, even in the cultural sense. It’s difficult to tell what was behind the Republicans’ efforts at the convention, other than to demonstrate that they are not an extreme rightist party. The convention was a real attempt to display that the party is moderate. Conscience: Are Democrats playing to Catholic voters in this election, and if so, how?

Tom Smith: The Democrats had a window of opportunity back in the primaries with the Bob Jones University flap, but I haven’t seen them try to explicitly exploit that. I didn’t detect a lot of direct talking to Catholics during the convention, for example. When I say talking to Catholics, I’m not saying talking to Hispanics as Hispanics, who are 80 percent Catholic, but talking to a specific group because of their religion. I didn’t hear them talking a lot to try to talk to Catholics in an overt sense at the convention, and I don’t see clear signs that either party is going to explicitly go after Catholics in the main election.

James Kelly: The Democrats haven’t been courting Catholic voters in any pronounced way. Gore gave it a small shot by having former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey’s son appear at the convention, in effect recognizing that the rejection of Bob Casey as a speaker at the Democratic convention in 1992 because of his prolife beliefs is something that still burns. Secondly, if you compare the Republicans and the Democrats issue by issue with what the bishops say, the Democrats do better than the Republican as far as social justice issues especially in terms of medical needs, educational needs, and helping all the people. But it’s hard for the guys on the Democratic national ticket to get the exposure that they need to court Catholics; they can’t get the photo opportunities at the churches. I’m not aware of any other outreach that is explicitly welcoming to Catholics.

Celinda Lake: The Democrats are strongly courting non-college-educated voters, and many of them are Catholic. There was a time when Democrats were really courting seniors with Social Security; many of them are Catholic. Catholic voters are not monolithic, but it depends on what issues you’re talking about. I don’t think that Catholics are treated as a bloc that much anymore.

Scott Keeter: In terms of the overall message, you are seeing a populist appeal that is probably going to be received by many of the sort of old-line Catholic constituencies-union members, working class folks, especially in the industrial Midwest. I think that you could argue that the selection of Joe Lieberman as a VP candidate sends a signal on issues like violence in the media and the like that could be helpful with more socially conservative Catholics, but I wouldn’t say that either of those things is calculatedly aimed at the Catholic vote alone.

John Russonello: The Democratic themes and issues naturally play to Catholic voters. Catholics voters tend to be focused on education for their kids, the opportunity to go to college, Medicare, social security-these issues matter to millions of Americans, but matter particularly to the group we call the Catholic vote because of where they are culturally in our society.


Conscience: What will be the significance of the Catholic vote in the upcoming presidential election?

Tom Smith: At one point in the primary campaign, the issue was raised as to whether Bush was soft on anti-Catholicism-not really that he was anti-Catholic himself, but that he was soft on prejudice against Catholics. I see no signs of that being a galvanizing issue, that Catholics will vote either for or against either Gore or Bush more than their historical levels would predict because of something a candidate either says or represents towards Catholics. If there is going to be a greater or lesser Catholic vote in the campaign, it will be because of the array of issues that the campaign emphasizes, and whether they are more or less appealing to Catholic voters-not necessarily because of their Catholicism in a strict doctrinal sense, but because of the kind of social issues that are more popular among Catholics, on average, than among non-Catholics.

James Kelly: It’s tough to say. In terms of social issues, during the primaries both the Catholic bishops and the Catholic laity seemed to be cited less and to figure less, with some exceptions-the Bush Bob Jones talk and McCain calling up the Michigan voters-but that was more a skirmish than an important part of the campaign. Second, Catholic voters, like most American voters, have an overall tendency to judge which party seems more likely to ensure that economic prosperity continues. How that will be decided in terms of rational calculations is hard to predict, but I think that that will be the overall dynamic driving it. And third, that you have to be careful of generalizations with the Catholic vote, because it’s entirely contingent on local races in terms of Republicans and Democrats. You have to really distinguish the presidential races from the local political scene, and that varies a great deal.

Celinda Lake: The Catholic vote is important in two ways. First of all, the white Catholic ethnic vote is a big proportion of the Midwest vote, which is a real battleground, and if you look at a number of the states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Missouri, there is a very high proportion of Catholic voters in them. The Hispanic vote-independently of the Catholicism of this group-is also a key target. Bush has done better among Hispanic voters-he’s really targeted them, so you’ll see that portion of the Catholic vote play a big role, too.

Scott Keeter: Catholics remain an important part of the Democratic coalition. They don’t tilt as significantly towards the Democrats as they once did, so the key from the Democratic point of view is being able to capture at least the proportion that they did in 1992 and ’96. Based on the polls that we’re looking at today, Joe Lieberman’s presence on the ticket will probably help to attract Catholic voters, because of the emphasis that he has placed on religion and the importance of faith in his own politics. That’s a message that I think will resonate with committed Catholics. It will benefit the ticket, but it doesn’t have any serious downside in terms of driving away the less-committed Catholics.

John Russonello: If you look at an electoral map, and then you look at map of where Catholics live in the U.S., it becomes really clear how important they are. Most of the Catholic vote is in the Northeast and the Midwest. In key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey, there is a very high concentration of Catholic voters. These are swing states, and the outcome in them will determine the election. Bush and Gore will visit these states, but they will not appeal to Catholic voters with a religious message. They will appeal to them with a message that talks about economic security for their families, educational opportunity-those are the types of messages that will be important to the Catholics in those states.

Tegan A. Culler is associate editor of Conscience.

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