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New Report Reveals Catholics Defy Stereotype of Monolithic Voting Bloc

October 15, 2002

Voting behavior of group most sought by politicians shows independence and volatility; disagreeing with bishops on key issues, refusing to be tied to either major party.

Washington, DC–  A new report released today by Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) analyzes the voting patterns of Catholics in America and reveals that they defy the stereotype of a monolithic voting bloc. Catholics are one-quarter of the electorate, but despite a convergence of concern for social justice and the value of the family, they show an increasing independence and volatility in voting. A large and crucial portion of Catholic voters refuse to be firmly tied to either major party, even as cultivating their vote has become a top priority of the Republican and Democratic Parties.

The report, entitled Beyond the Spin, was produced by CFFC, a social justice organization, to help candidates, policymakers and media better understand the place of the 63.8 million Catholic laypeople and their leadership in the 2002 elections. By analyzing national surveys and polling, political reporting, and social research on Catholic voters, Beyond the Spin illuminates Catholics’ swing vote relationship to the Republican and Democratic parties and how their attitudes towards reproductive health issues are often misrepresented by the Catholic hierarchy, confusing candidates about what is spin and what is reality.

The report stresses that issues important to Catholics are not unlike those significant to mainstream voters. A recent survey of Catholic voters, for example, showed they are most concerned about bread-and-butter issues of personal economic security. They are influenced more by what the candidates will do about preserving Social Security and Medicare, improving health care and education, and fighting crime, than by church-defined issues of morality. 

“ Like other Americans, Catholics vote their wallets. ” Stated Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “Candidates need to be more aware of the issues of real concern to Catholic voters, and to understand their true opinion on moral issues that the church falsely promotes as important to Catholic voters.”

Beyond the Spin explores how both national parties are presently making the strongest bid in over a decade for what they perceive of as the “Catholic vote.” Their attention is due to the large concentration of Catholics in key battleground states and because of their track record of going with the winner in every presidential election since 1972. The only exception to that trend was in 2000, when more Catholics voted for Al Gore than George W. Bush.

Cultivating the Catholic vote has become the cornerstone of President Bush’s political strategy for both this year’s Senate and House races and for his own re-election effort in 2004.  Since the 2000 election, the GOP has tried to attract more churchgoing Catholic voters by stressing moral and religious themes and “compassionate conservatism.” But the bid for the “Catholic vote” is based on a general lack of understanding about how Catholics do and do not vote. Many candidates and policymakers are unaware of exactly what the “Catholic vote” means.  

On a range of issues, the report shows that Catholic voters are more likely to stand with other Americans than with the US Catholic bishops and the Vatican. Majorities of Catholic voters, for example, support the death penalty (80%), legal abortion (66%) and the practice of allowing doctors to assist in the suicide of terminally ill patients (56%). These issues have made their way into political races. For example:

  • In Michigan, anti-abortion protestors flocked to the parish of Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic nominee for governor who professes a “100 percent prochoice” stance.   When Granholm’s parish priest urged fellow Catholics to try to understand her position, he was scolded by his bishop.  Protesters even picketed the home of Cardinal Adam Maida, the Detroit archbishop, to try and get him to publicly condemn the candidate for her position.
  • In Texas, Bishop Edmond Carmody of Corpus Christi banned gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez and lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp, both Roman Catholics, from speaking in Catholic facilities in their hometowns because they favor abortion rights.
  • In New Jersey, the Most Reverend John Smith, Bishop of Trenton forbids publicly honoring any Catholic pro-choice politicians or inviting them to speak at public events and educational programs; similar prohibitions are in force in dioceses in Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and around the country.

Despite such attempts to characterize the “Catholic vote” as focused on one-issue, the report shows that Catholics do not vote as a bloc. There is almost an even Democratic-Republican split among Catholics, and 40 percent of Catholics are in the “swing voter” category. Catholics are both Republicans and Democrats whose support cannot be “won” by either party on issues that are distinctively Catholic.

Jennifer Bernstein, director of public policy at CFFC states, “Catholics don’t go to church to hear political statements. A majority of Catholics are not influenced by the political recommendations of their priests, their bishops or even the Pope.”