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Conscience Magazine

How Catholics Voted

By Karl Agne January 21, 2021

US CATHOLIC VOTERS PLAYED A pivotal role in the 2020 election, helping lift Democrat Joe Biden to a narrow victory over President Donald Trump. In so doing, they sent a powerful message about support for abortion rights and access to reproductive healthcare among US Catholics today, as well as the limited role they believe US bishops should play in our electoral system.

A national survey of Catholic voters in the 2020 election shows that an overwhelming majority of Catholics continue to respect the intensely personal nature of reproductive health issues and support people exercising their own conscience when it comes to making these decisions. Majorities of Catholic voters support access to legal abortions in this country, oppose efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade and say abortion could be a morally acceptable choice for individuals to make.

This thorough repudiation of US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) ideology is consistent with US Catholics’ beliefs on a range of issues, particularly those dealing with so-called religious freedom issues, when Catholics broadly reject the use of religion as a weapon for discrimination against women, communities of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals and other minorities in our country. But rejection of the Catholic hierarchy’s efforts to influence our political debate extends to such issues as insurance coverage for birth control, coverage of abortion and other reproductive health treatments through public health programs, in-vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research.

Our survey reveals a diverse Catholic electorate that reflects many of the political and demographic divisions driving the broader political environment in this country, including significant differences based on gender, age and race and ethnicity. While abortion dominates much of the media narrative about the Catholic vote—thanks to the USCCB making it a preeminent issue, it simply was not a top priority in the 2020 election for the vast majority of Catholic voters, whose votes were driven by concerns such as the economy and jobs, healthcare, retirement security and the coronavirus pandemic. To the extent that abortion does play into their voting decisions, Catholics are nearly twice as likely to vote for a candidate who supports access to safe and legal abortion care than they are a candidate who opposes abortion and wants to make it illegal.

Looking at the relationship between the US bishops and the country’s political leaders, Catholic voters overwhelmingly disagree with efforts to deny Communion and other sacraments to those who support access to legal abortion. A broad majority of Catholic voters say Catholic politicians do not have an obligation to vote the way Catholic bishops recommend, and majorities similarly say they do not place much importance on the views of US bishops when it comes to their own votes for president, Congress or state and local government. This consistent prioritization of conscience over dogma is reflected across a broad range of specific public policy issues in this research and reflects a Catholic electorate that has thought deeply about these issues and a church leadership structure dangerously removed from the priorities of the faithful.

The questions in this survey that elicited the broadest agreement across traditional partisan and demographic lines focused on so-called religious freedom issues and how government should weigh the religious beliefs of employers and providers of various services against the constitutional rights of all Americans. More than two in three Catholics come down on the side of protecting individual rights and banning discrimination in each of the following instances:

No individual should be denied healthcare because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Companies or other institutions should not be allowed to use the owners’ religious beliefs as a reason to deny their employees or customers access to specific services. Employers should not be allowed to deny birth control coverage to their employees and their employees’ dependents because of the employer’s religious beliefs. Gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt or foster children, and religiously affiliated adoption agencies or foster services should not be allowed to refuse to work with these couples. Catholic hospitals that take taxpayer dollars should not be allowed to use religious beliefs as a reason to deny patients access to certain medical procedures and medications. It should be illegal for a private school or university to fire an employee for personal conduct outside of their job that violates the institution’s religious teachings, such as an unmarried employee becoming pregnant or an employee being in a same-sex relationship.

Taken as a whole, our survey findings paint a very different picture of the Catholic vote than the one that appeared in many pre-election discussions of this diverse but strategically critical group. Our hope is that these findings help inform a more thoughtful examination of Catholic voters and their clear support for keeping abortion legal, expanding access to safe and affordable reproductive healthcare, rejecting overt political influence from US bishops and protecting Americans from discrimination  in the name of religious freedom.

Catholic voters are clearly frustrated with the direction of the country, as 63 percent say the country is moving on the wrong track, compared to just 37 percent who feel things are going in the right direction.

Partisan identification among Catholic voters is evenly split (46% each), but Biden managed to win US Catholics by four points in this election (51% to 47%) by winning the small segment of Independent Catholics by the same margin (50% to 46%). Trump won a small majority of white Catholics (46% to 52%), while Latinx Catholics went for Biden by a much larger margin (57% to 42%). Within the Catholic Latinx electorate, we saw a significant gender gap, similar to what was revealed in exit polls among all Latinx voters; Biden won Catholic Latinas by 24 points while winning Catholic Latinos by just four points.

The bottom line in the presidential race is that a majority of Catholic voters chose a prochoice candidate who publicly embraces his Catholic faith over an incumbent who assiduously courted evangelical voters and prioritized the installation of far-right, prolife judges in the federal judiciary over virtually all other policy outcomes over the last four years. The not ion that catering to single-issue, anti-abortion forces would deliver the Catholic vote was once again proven false at the ballot box, despite record turnout among Trump leaning voters in key battlegrounds across the country.

Mainstream media outlets often seek to draw parallels between Catholic voters and evangelical Protestant voters, but this election shows there is no comparison between these groups. Evangelical and born-again Protestant voters represent the base of Trump’s support, while Catholics are a key swing group overall and delivered critical margins for Biden in this election. Although we do not have final, definitive data to analyze, exit polls suggest that Trump won more than 80 percent of white evangelical and born-again voters (there is no publicly available data for voters of color in this category), while our polling shows Biden won Catholics overall by four points and lost white Catholics by five points. Comparing these two dramatically different constituencies—not only in terms of voting behavior, but also on issues of policy and values—defines their very different trajectories over the course of the last three decades.

The race for Congress was fiercely contested across the country, and the Catholic vote was similarly divided in these races, siding with the Democrats by a slim two points (50% to 48%). These down-ballot Democrats matched Biden’s performance among Latinx Catholics, but performed slightly worse among Independent Catholics (46% to 50%). Similarly, Democratic candidates for Congress slightly outperformed Biden among Catholic voters under 30 but ran a net eight points behind Biden among Catholic seniors.

Asked about the issues driving their vote decision for president this year, Catholics identified five top issues—the economy, jobs and wages; healthcare; Social Security and Medicare; the coronavirus pandemic; and national security. At the other end of the spectrum, abortion ranked last out of the 12 issues tested. Abortion also ranked last or next to last on the list of priorities with virtually every demographic subgroup of Catholic voters.

Looking at the fundamental question of whether abortion should be legal, 57 percent of Catholic voters say it should be legal, while just 37 percent say it should be illegal. Majority support for legal abortion stretches across most demographic lines throughout the Catholic electorate, but it is particularly high among Latinx voters under 50 (66%), Latinas (63%) and Catholics under 40 (61%). While support for legal abortion is predictably highest among Democrats (75%), a majority of Independents (52%) and a large share of Republicans (42%) agree.

By a slightly larger margin, Catholic voters also say the US Supreme Court should not overturn its Roe v. Wade decision—just 30 percent support such a decision, while 53 percent do not. It is important to note that our approach to asking this question on Roe v. Wade was different than in past surveys in that we did not define the case for respondents or provide any context: The fact that nearly 1-in-5 Catholics are unable to offer an opinion when asked about Roe without any context underscores again how peripheral this issue is for many Catholic voters.

Taking yet another approach to measuring Catholic attitudes on abortion, we asked respondents—regardless of their own position on the issue—if they believe deciding to have an abortion could be a morally acceptable decision. Again, a majority (52%) concurred, while fewer than one in three Catholic voters (30%) rejected the idea. There was a large age divide on this question, with voters under 50 (56% to 29%) more likely to view it as a morally acceptable decision than older voters (49% to 30%). Among Latinx Catholics, this gap was even larger—58 to 24 percent among those under 50, and 44 to 30 percent among older Latinx voters. While we do see some large differences here based on demographics, every demographic subgroup across the Catholic electorate views abortion as a morally acceptable decision by double-digit margins.

Finally, we explored the electoral impact of abortion stances among Catholic voters. A clear plurality say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports women having access to safe and legal abortion care (46%), while the remainder are split between those who are more likely to support a candidate who opposes abortion and wants to make it illegal (27%) and those who say the issue simply does not make a difference in their vote (22%). Among Independent Catholics, support for abortion remains an electoral advantage (42%, compared to 27% more likely to support an abortion opponent).

Looking at all of these abortion-related questions as whole, a clear lesson emerges: There is a small but consistent minority of Catholic voters who takes a hard anti-abortion line—37 percent say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, 30 percent want to overturn Roe v. Wade and say abortion can’t be a morally acceptable choice and 27 percent are more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes abortions. They are a loud minority whose voice is amplified by US bishops and a compliant media, but they are unmistakably a minority. The majority of American Catholics clearly support legal abortion, oppose overturning Roe v. Wade and view abortion as a morally acceptable decision, and the political impact of abortion among Catholic voters is decisively in favor of prochoice candidates. Media narratives that reverse this simple math are perpetuating antiquated myths with no foundation in our culture.

One of the reasons abortion remains so central to coverage of the Catholic vote in the US, despite consistent polling showing majority support for legal abortion among Catholics, is the disconnect between Catholic voters and the USCCB. Many members of the media and public commentators continue to cling to the idea that Catholic voters are closely aligned with the teachings and dictates of US bishops, but this is simply not supported by the available data. In this survey, clear majorities say they do not place significant importance in the views of Catholic bishops in the US when it comes to casting their own votes for president, Congress or state and local government.

The election of Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president puts a renewed focus on the question of whether Catholic elected officials have an obligation to follow the teachings of US bishops. By a margin of nearly 2-to-1, Catholic voters say politicians who are Catholic have no obligation to vote on issues the way Catholic bishops recommend (30% to 58%). The intensity on this measure is noteworthy, with 36 percent of Catholic voters strongly rejecting this notion, compared to just 14 percent who strongly support it. Interestingly, we see a significant age gap on this measure as well, but this time it is older Catholics who are most likely to reject the idea that Catholic politicians have any responsibility to follow the bishops in their voting decisions—those 50 and older reject it by nearly twice as much (24% to 62%) as voters under 50, who reject the idea by 19 points (35% to 54%).

We also explored the idea of US bishops withholding Communion and other sacraments from Catholics who support access to legal abortion—another controversy in which Biden has been involved, due to threats from certain American bishops outside his own diocese. This question garnered more consensus than any other question in the survey to this point, with just 23 percent supporting the concept, compared to 66 percent who oppose it, including 53 percent who strongly oppose it. Majorities across party lines reject this proposal—81 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Republicans.

Beyond efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade and restrict access to legal abortions, a number of other policy debates related to reproductive health will face the leaders recently elected across the country. Our survey tested many of these and found consistent support for protecting access to a range of reproductive health options and rejecting efforts to use government-funded healthcare to discriminate against lower-income families by denying them access to abortion services.

Public support among Catholics for IVF and insurance coverage of birth control is very consistent across demographic and partisan lines, with broad majorities of every subgroup supporting these positions. There is some differentiation on embryonic stem cells; we still see majority support across all major dividing lines, but support is particularly high among Democrats and Catholics under 40 years of age. Medicaid coverage for abortion is the one issue tested in this survey in which sharp divisions emerge on partisanship (Democrats and Independents support it, Republicans oppose it), gender (women support it by 20 points, men support it by two points) and age (voters under 50 support it by 26 points, voters 50+ support it by five points)—but nonetheless, a majority of Catholics supports the position while just 41 percent oppose it.

A final theme we chose to explore with Catholic voters in 2020 was the debate over religious freedom and efforts to use religion as a rationale for employers or service providers to deny the rights of those they would choose to discriminate against. Each of the following statements tests different scenarios or circumstances, but the consistently huge margins on each demonstrate a clear lesson—Catholic voters have no tolerance for using religion as a weapon to discriminate against others.

What is most striking in this entire battery of messages is the consistency across traditional partisan and ideological divisions. While we have sought to draw attention to important distinctions between groups on other measures, it is the majority agreement across virtually every subgroup and every statement with each of the fundamental value statements in this exercise that is most noteworthy.

Catholic voters, like the US electorate, hold diverse political and ideological views, abhor institutional discrimination against individuals, oppose the repeal of abortion protections and support the election of the first explicitly prochoice Catholic president of the United States. The US Catholic bishops, leading in a direction tangential to where the flock is heading, would do well to temper their ongoing campaign against real religious freedom and single-minded anti-abortion politics and really listen to the members in the pews.

1 GBAO conducted a representative national survey of 1,000 general election voters between October 26 and November 3, 2020. All respondents self-identified as Catholic. Approximately 57 percent of interviews were completed among those who voted prior to Election Day, with the remainder conducted on Election Day among respondents who voted that day. Interviews were conducted online via a web-based panel. Survey results are subject to a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

Karl Agne
Karl Agne

is a founding partner and principal at GBAO, a survey research and strategic consulting firm.