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If You Want to Win Catholic Voters, Don’t Rely on the Bishops

October 24, 2000

New Poll Challenges Conventional Wisdom that
Social Messages Determine the Catholic Vote

Washington, DC—A new poll refutes a general misconception about what some have called the biggest swing vote in American politics—Catholic voters.

There is a prevailing myth that Catholics vote primarily on social issues such as abortion and that they are influenced by the positions of the church hierarchy. A new national poll of Catholic voters by Belden Russonello & Stewart (a public opinion research firm) commissioned by Catholics for a Free Choice found voters are most concerned about bread-and-butter issues of personal economic security rather than hot-button social issues.  It also revealed that the overwhelming majority of Catholic voters are not influenced by the Catholic bishops.

For example, the poll found that Catholic voters want the next president to give top priority to protecting Social Security and Medicare and improving the health care system. And, 73 percent agree that the country should use “more of the budget surplus to preserve Social Security and Medicare rather than for a tax cut.”  Fewer than one-third thought the next president’s top priority should be “promoting moral values in the country” and the majority of Catholic voters call themselves prochoice.

“The Catholic church has very little influence on the voting behavior of the vast majority of Catholic voters. In fact, 75 percent said the views of the bishops were unimportant. On a range of issues, Catholic voters are more likely to stand with other Americans than with the Catholic bishops and the Vatican. Given that Catholics have voted for the winner in the past seven elections, both presidential candidates may want to rethink their approach to this crucial voting population,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

In the race for president, neither candidate has yet to win the Catholic vote.  Catholic voters nationwide are evenly split at this point 42 percent for Gore and 42 percent for Bush.  However, in the key swing states of Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Missouri, Gore enjoys a slight lead of 3 percentage points. The poll also found:

  • Seventy percent don’t believe that Catholics have a religious obligation to vote for candidates who oppose legal abortion.
  • Majorities of Catholic voters support legal abortion (66 percent), the death penalty (80 percent), and the practice of allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of terminally ill patients (56 percent).
  • Despite the efforts of the Catholic bishops to thrust abortion into the political debate, seven in ten Catholics (70%) believe that the Catholic bishops should not use the political arena to advance their moral opinions.
  • Catholic voters also challenge assumptions regarding vouchers. Their support (57 percent) is only slighter higher than the nation as a whole.
  • Despite earlier attention to anti-Catholicism in the presidential campaign as result of Governor Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University, 72 percent do not worry that the candidates might be anti-Catholic.

Catholics make up 23 percent of the population. In some of the battleground states, it’s even larger at 23.4 percent in Michigan, 29.6 percent in Pennsylvania, and 31.7 percent in Wisconsin, according to the 2000 Catholic Almanac.

The Belden Russonello & Stewart (BRS) national survey of Catholics, conducted for Catholics for a Free Choice, interviewed 1,003 self-described Catholics who are likely to vote in the presidential election.  The interviews took place from October 10 to 15, 2000, using the Knowledge Networks Web-enabled panel.  This sample is derived from a random digit dial (RDD) telephone methodology that represents all U.S. households with telephones.  The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence for the entire sample.

For more information or a copy of the poll, please contact Tracy Zimmerman or Janeen Lawlor at 202-518-8047.

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