Skip to main content
Toggle Banner
You can make an impact in the fight for reproductive freedom.

Major New Poll Demonstrates that Catholic Voters are Divided on President, United against Church Influence in Politics

August 21, 2008

Washington, DC—A major new poll released today by Catholics for Choice reveals that Catholic voters, who make up 25% of the American electorate, are currently splitting their vote for president between Barack Obama and John McCain, but are united in their aversion to mixing religion and politics.

Seven in ten (70%) of those polled say that the views of Catholic bishops are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote and a similarly large proportion (73%) says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend.

Catholic voters show little interest in so-called values issues to help them decide who should be the next president. Instead, they want the next president to focus on improving the economy, ending the war in Iraq and keeping the country safe from terrorism.

The race for president is currently a close one among Catholic voters. At the time the survey was conducted:

• 42% of Catholics would vote for Democrat Barack Obama and 40% would vote for Republican John McCain, with one in six (17%) undecided.
• McCain holds a slim lead among white Catholic voters (44% to 37%), while Obama is winning the Latino Catholic vote by a huge margin (61% to 23%). (Latinos make up one in six Catholic voters.)
• The youngest voters, ages 18 to 34, prefer Obama over McCain 47% to 41%.
• When younger voters are combined with voters slightly older, the vote splits by gender: Catholic women under 45 years old go with Obama (48% to 37%) while men under 45 tend toward McCain (46% to 41%).

National and economic security are greater priorities for Catholic voters than are so-called values issues when considering who should be the next president of the United States. In order of importance, Catholics say that priorities are: improving the economy (68% saying it should be one of the highest priorities); protecting the U.S. from terrorism (54%); resolving the war in Iraq (50%); and making health care more affordable (48%). While still a top concern, terrorism worries Catholics considerably less now than it did in June 2004 before the last presidential election (65% in 2004 and 54% today).

The next tier of priorities also reflects practical domestic needs, including protecting Social Security (47%), improving public education (34%) and cutting taxes (34%). Less important priorities for Catholic voters are advancing civil liberties (26%), promoting moral values in the country (25%), deporting illegal immigrants (23%), addressing global warming (22%), protecting a woman’s right to choose abortion (18%), promoting human rights (17%) and advancing gay rights (6%).

“Catholics are listening carefully to what the candidates have to say, but very few are following the dictates of the Catholic bishops when it comes to politics,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “While Catholic Republicans and Democrats and McCain and Obama voters may disagree on national priorities, majorities of all of these voters strongly agree that Catholics are not obligated to heed the bishops’ recommendations,” adding that, “Sixty-nine percent of Catholics do not feel obligated to vote against candidates who support abortion. Despite what the US bishops promote, the majority of Catholics disagree with the bishops about a wide range of sexual and reproductive health issues.”

On many issues, Catholics tend to mirror the electorate at large. In particular, Catholic voters do not approve of schools teaching abstinence-only programs in schools. Six in ten (64%) oppose requiring high school sex education programs to only teach abstinence. They also believe insurance companies should be required to cover and pharmacists required to sell birth control pills. Three-quarters of Catholics support requiring health insurance plans to cover birth control pills (75%). Nearly eight in ten (78%) oppose allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions.

“The Catholic vote has been the classic swing vote in American presidential politics. In the last nine Presidential elections, the candidate who won the Catholic vote has won the popular vote nationwide. The Catholic vote is a reliable indicator of how American voters will land on election day,” said O’Brien. “The candidates and the bishops should begin paying careful attention to what Catholics care about—the economy, the war in Iraq, social security and health care. Neither Obama nor McCain should be concentrating on issues like abortion, which will clearly have so little effect on how Catholics will vote come November,” continued O’Brien.

Catholics for Choice commissioned this non-partisan and wide-ranging national survey dealing with both international and domestic issues. From July 8 to July 15, the prominent DC polling firm Belden Russonello & Stewart surveyed 1,033 Catholics who are likely voters in the 2008 presidential election. The survey included an oversample of 200 Latino Catholic likely voters for a total of 295 Latino interviews. This is the third pre-presidential survey of Catholic voters that Catholics for Choice has conducted. The surveys conducted in October 2000 and June 2004 reflected Catholic voter preferences for President on election day.

The survey has a ±3.1 percentage-point margin of sampling error for a random sample of this size. The margin of error for results of the Hispanic subsample is ±5.7 percentage points. The demographic characteristics of the sample have been weighted statistically to bring age, race and region into their proper proportions for likely Catholic voters based on 2004 exit poll data.
For more information or a copy of the poll, please contact Jen Heitel Yakush at (202) 986-6093.
To view the executive summary of the poll, click here.