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Conscience Magazine

The Changing Faces of the Catholic Electorate

By Natalie Jackson December 18, 2020

With a Catholic candidate headlining the Democratic ticket, the 2020 presidential election saw Catholic voters divided just almost evenly between President Donald Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden. Comprising one-fifth to one-quarter of the electorate, Catholics as swing voters proved instrumental in determining the outcome. Relative to their votes in 2016, the Catholic swing towards Biden represents one of the biggest demographic shifts of 2020 and is likely one of the reasons Biden prevailed in enough key states to win the election.

Since 1960, Catholics have accounted for roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the US population and electorate, functioning as a swing group for much of that time. In the twelve presidential elections from 1972 to 2016, Catholic voters have evenly pivoted in each direction, with swings as a majority for the Democratic candidate six times and the for the Republican candidate six times.

The composition of the Catholic vote, however, has changed drastically in the last six decades. The surge of Latinx Catholics into the US has substantially altered the geographic concentrations, party affiliations, and voting patterns of Catholics throughout the country. Most notably, as white Catholics became more consistently Republican-leaning, Democratic-leaning Latinx Catholics have kept the group overall in the center. An examination of these emerging demographics helps set the stage for exploring their current and future political impacts.

In 1960, according to the American National Election Study (ANES), 99 percent of Catholics in the US were white and 1 percent were Black. In 2020, data from PRRI shows that Catholics are still majority white—though barely. While 54 percent of US Catholics are white, 38 percent are Latinx , 4 percent are Black, and 5 percent are multiracial, Asian American, or another race.

Stated another way, in 1960, 20 percent of the US population was Catholic, and 19 percent of the US population was white Catholic. In 2020, a similar 22 percent of the US population is Catholic, but now the white Catholic proportion has declined to 12 percent of the US population. White Catholics remained around 19 percent of the population through the early 2000s but have dropped off since as part of the general US trend of declining religiosity. The influx of Latinx Catholics has continued, however, increasing from 5 percent of the US population in 2000 to 8 percent in 2020.

The ANES data identifies two sizeable change points in the racial and ethnic makeup of Catholics in the US The white proportion of Catholics steadily declined from 99 percent in 1960 to 85 percent in 1980, then dropped to 74 percent by 1984 as the Latinx proportion jumped from 10 percent in 1980 to 21 percent in 1984. A similar shift occurred between 2004, when Catholics in the US were 75 percent white and 18 percent Latinx. In 2008, as the proportion of white Catholics dropped to 65 percent, representation of Latinx Catholics rose to 29 percent. ANES data clearly demonstrates that these proportions have held steady through 2016, although data for 2020 are not yet available for comparison.

The share of Latinx and white Catholics varies a bit by data source, however. PRRI data indicates that in 2020, 54 percent of Catholics are white and 38 percent identify as Latinx. The change in numbers from 2016 to 2020 seems to result from a difference in surveys, not a dramatic population change, since PRRI data from 2016 shows 55 percent of Catholics identify as white and 36 percent as Latinx.

As the racial and ethnic makeup of the US Catholic population shifts as a result of immigration, so too has the group’s geographic concentration. In 1960, most Catholics lived in the Northeastern part of the country (54%), about one-quarter lived in the Midwest (24%), 15 percent lived in the West, and only 8 percent lived in the South. As a result of gradual shifts over intervening decades, Catholics are now distributed more equitably throughout the country. The largest concentration still resides in the Northeast (29%), slightly fewer are in the Midwest (19%), and many more live in the West (25%) and South (18%).

Distribution of Catholics in urban, suburban, and rural areas has also undergone substantial change. In 1960, one-third lived in urban areas (33%), with 36 percent in suburban areas, and 31 percent in rural areas. By 1980, a slim majority lived in suburban areas (51%) with the biggest decline in rural areas (22%). In 2020 the rural population continued to decline to 15 percent, increased to 40 percent in urban areas, and came to represent 45 percent of suburban residents.

A majority of Catholics in 1960 identified as Democrats (62%), with 23 percent independent and 16 percent Republican. As parties realigned, a higher number of conservative white voters identified as Republicans, shrinking their spread across both parties at a time when the composition of the Catholic population continued to shift throughout the 1970s and 1980s, leading to present circumstances where the proportion of Democrats declined steadily to around 38 percent in 2020. About one-quarter of Catholics identify as independent (24%), and just over one-third are Republicans (34%). This close balance of partisanship goes a long way towards explaining why Catholics have represented a critical swing group in elections since 1960.

Though Catholic voters have divided between Democrats and Republicans in the last 50 years, they have given neither side large or consistent margins. The divide between white and Latinx has been considerable, however. The cultural, linguistic, political and attitudinal differences between white Catholics and Latinx Catholics result in many political analysts dividing Catholics into those groups for analysis.

Since the onset of reliable national exit polling in 1972, Latinx Catholics have voted markedly more for Democrats than white Catholics. Catholics of other racial and ethnic identities have not produced sufficient numbers in the exit polls to track.

In presidential elections, white Catholics have historically waffled between majority support for Democratic candidates and Republican candidates. Support has shifted from Republican Richard Nixon in 1972, to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, back to Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush throughout the 1980s, while achieving pluralities for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 (with substantial portions going to independent Ross Perot in those years). From 2000 on, however, white Catholics have consistently voted majority Republican, showing majority support for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012, and Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Latinx Catholics have consistently cast two-thirds of their votes for Democratic presidential candidates and one-third for Republican candidates, with the lowest Democratic vote shares in years in which Republican presidents were running for reelection (1984, 1992, and 2004). The highest Democratic vote share among Latinx Catholics occurred in 1996, when 81 percent voted to reelect Clinton—even with Independent Perot on the ballot. About three-fourths of Latinx Catholics voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, with support dropping slightly to 67% for Hillary Clinton in 2016, with numbers appearing similar to the previous election for Biden in 2020.

Early indications from the AP Vote-Cast exit poll point to Catholics splitting evenly overall in 2020—an election that featured a Catholic candidate on the ballot, with 49 percent voting for President-Elect Joe Biden and 50 percent voting for President Donald Trump. In the Edison Research exit poll, Catholics divided 52 percent for Biden and 47 percent for Trump. As of this writing, the exit polls are not finalized, but the preliminary data shows that white Catholics appear to have been slightly more likely to vote for Biden than Clinton in 2016.

According to the AP VoteCast exit poll, the share of white Catholics voting for Trump does not seem to have substantially moved (57% in 2020 vs. 60% in 2016), indicating that the votes Biden gained could be partly from 2016 third party voters. There is little indication that Catholics supported Biden simply for being Catholic, although some voters might have considered it.

Appearing to have voted in line with the general, historical pattern of two-thirds for the Democrat, Latinx Voters went 66 percent for Biden, unchanged from 67 percent for Clinton in 2016. However, early data also shows that Trump earned 33 percent of their votes compared to 25 percent in 2016. This is consistent with their pattern of showing a bit more support for a Republican incumbent (as in 1984, 1992, and 2004) than in years where there is a Democratic incumbent or an open race. The combination of Democratic votes holding steady and Trump votes increasing indicates that third party voters from 2016 may have swung toward Trump.

The geography, demographics and political characteristics of both white and Latinx Catholic groups—combined with their propensity to swing between Republicans and Democrats—demonstrates that Catholic voters have substantial influence in electoral outcomes. According to early 2020 estimates, Catholic voters comprised 22 to 25 percent of the electorate, with white Catholics averaging about two-thirds of that total and Latinx Catholics adding the remaining third.

In some critical states, those proportions were even larger. For example: according to the AP VoteCast data, Florida’s electorate is estimated at about one quarter (24%) Catholic, splitting between 14 percent white and 10 percent Latinx Catholic. Similarly, 22 percent of Arizona’s electorate is Catholic, dividing almost evenly between white (12%) and Latinx (10%). The near-battleground state of Texas, however, contains more Latinx Catholic (14%) than white Catholic (10%) voters.

In key Midwest states, Catholic voters also comprise a sizeable chunk of the electorate, though most Catholics in these states are white. Michigan’s electorate is estimated to be 24 percent Catholic, comprised of 22 percent white Catholics and only two percent Latinx Catholics. Pennsylvania exhibits a similar breakdown, with 25 percent of the electorate white Catholic and 2 percent Latinx Catholic. Wisconsin estimates represent a near-match, with 26 percent white Catholic and 2 percent Latinx Catholic.

In electorally close states with substantial Latinx Catholic proportions, the general trend of more Democratic-leaning votes creates some balance for the more Republican-leaning white Catholics, adding to the overall battleground status of those states. In Midwest battleground states, high turnout among white Catholics can mean the size of margin for the Republican candidate will be consequential in determining the outcome. Combined with religiosity in midwestern battlegrounds, migration in southern and western battlegrounds will continue to shape electoral politics in these states.

As reflected in their partisanship, white and Latinx Catholics differ in policy preferences and views of candidates. Perhaps most telling are differences in what issues each consider to be “critical.” According to PRRI data, majorities of both white (58%) and Latinx (52%) Catholics say health care is a critical issue, with similar proportions agreeing crime is a critical issue (51% among white Catholics, 52% among Latinx Catholics). Similar majorities of white Catholics and Latinx Catholics also view terrorism as a key issue (54% and 52%, respectively). But on several other issues facing the US, white and Latinx Catholics differ substantially on assigning critical status.

In general, Latinx Catholics are more likely to rate issues as critical. Majorities of both groups say the coronavirus pandemic is a critical issue, but more than seven in ten Latinx Catholics (72%) say this, compared to 58 percent of white Catholics. Six in ten Latinx Catholics (60%) highlight jobs and unemployment as a critical issue, compared to half (50%) of white Catholics.

Larger gaps also exist on core issues that are highly polarized. A majority of Latinx Catholics (55%) view climate change as a critical issue, while four in ten white Catholics (40%) say the same. Nearly half of Latinx Catholics (49%) say immigration is a critical issue, while only 28 percent of white Catholics agree. The largest gaps are on racial inequality and the growing expanse between the rich and the poor, with a majority of Latinx Democrats citing these as critical issues (52% on both), compared to less than three in ten white Catholics (28% on both) stating the same.

This data illustrates where the issues deemed critical align with parties and partisanship of white Catholics and Latinx Catholics. Democrats and Democratic candidates are much more likely to focus on climate change and racial inequality than Republicans and are more likely to address the gap between the rich and the poor. Immigration is addressed more by Republicans than Democrats, but the stricter policies Republicans push are less popular among Latinx Catholics than they are among white Catholics.

The issue of abortion is often brought up when Catholic voters are discussed, but there is not much evidence that Catholic voters are any more likely to be motivated by that issue in their vote choices than other Americans. One in five Americans overall (20%) say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, and that proportion is no different among white Catholics (20%) or Latinx Catholics (20%). The only religious group significantly more likely than others to say a candidate has to share their view on abortion is white evangelical Protestants (36%). Latinx Catholics are more likely than white Catholics to say abortion should be legal in most or all cases (63% vs. 53%), but Latinx Catholics are also more likely than white Catholics to say it is not a major issue for voting (34% vs. 24%).

The decades-long demographic trends that substantially changed the face of Catholicism in the US seem to be slowing to a more stable point. Combined with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on stopping most migration, that means the near future of Catholics and their impact on US politics is likely to remain similar to what we see in 2020.

White Catholic declines resulting from an increase in Americans identifying as non-religious have slowed in recent years compared to the early 2010s, and the increase in these religious “nones” has slowed. The influx of Latinx Catholics into the US has likely slowed with the overall slowing trend in Latinx immigration, but the population is still increasing. It is not clear how the coronavirus pandemic has affected these trends, however. With border closings and a dire situation in the US, it would not be surprising to see little population change due to immigration in 2020 and over the next year or two. Movement within the US might also be slow due to the pandemic, meaning that regionally there might be little change in the near future.

Even after taking this into account, pandemic-related impacts will be short term and migration will resume at some point, and the US is undeniably becoming more religiously and racially diverse. Catholicism is a very large, diverse branch of Christianity outside of the US It is likely to continue moving in that direction within the US as well. It has been an impressive shift from a 99 percent white religious group in 1960 to around 55 percent white 60 years later. The trend might stabilize for a few years, but as evident in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, sizeable changes in racial diversity will happen when immigration flows increase, and the 2010s demonstrate that we could see periods of religious divestment.

As one-fifth of the population, Catholics will clearly continue to have a significant role in shaping political and electoral outcomes. Both parties will almost-certainly continue appealing to Catholic voters as a swing group, with Democrats likely continuing to see more success with Latinx Catholics than Republicans—though Latinx Catholics represent a large and diverse group with mixed political views. They have been remarkably stable with about two-thirds supporting Democratic presidential candidates and one-third supporting Republicans. White Catholics are likely to continue to favor Republicans, but the margins by which they lean that direction have never been as large as the margins Latinx Catholics give to Democratic candidates. It is easy to imagine the back-and-forth seen in past presidential elections among white Catholics returning in future cycles.

Politicians and parties ignore Catholic voters at their peril. But they also ignore the unique views of Latinx Catholic and white Catholic voters at their peril.

Natalie Jackson
Natalie Jackson

NATALIE JACKSON, PHD, is the Director of Research at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Her work has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals Electoral Studies and Social Science Quarterly, as well as in several edited volumes.