The Catholic vote?
November 1st, 2016
By Father Kenneth Weare
Ever since the 1960 U.S. presidential election of the Democratic Party nominee, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, the political commentators, pundits, pollsters, and other so-called voting experts have repeatedly drawn attention to “the Catholic vote.”
In fact, at least as far back as the 1928 election with the defeat of Democratic nominee, Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic, the national discussion focused on him as the first Catholic nominee for president, and on the coalescing of a “Catholic vote” in his support.
In contemporary political conversation it is not uncommon for voters to speak in terms of “the Black vote,” “the Hispanic vote,” “the women’s vote,” “the labor vote,” or “the LGBT vote.”
Today, with an abundance of publicity and social media interest accorded the Catholic Church both for good (Pope Francis) and for evil (clergy child abuse), with prominent government posts held by Catholics (Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden), and with Catholics becoming the largest religious group in both in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, it is not surprising that people once again conjure up the notion of “the Catholic vote.”
The reality, however, is quite different. Even a cursory view of U.S. voting history reveals that “the Catholic vote” as such simply does not exist. Indeed, the Catholic vote has very closely resembled the overall national presidential vote. Catholics have not formed a meaningful swing voting bloc for decades. Moreover, Catholic politicians have routinely sidestepped various church teachings on specific social issues such as same-sex marriage, contraception, capital punishment, and others, without being seriously rejected by Catholic voters.
In the last election, in November 2012, President Obama won 50 percent to 48 percent of Catholics. The overall national tally was 51 percent to 47 percent. That was the third straight election in a row when the Catholic vote was nearly the same as the national vote.
Previously, in 2008, President Obama won by 9 percent among Catholics, and by 7 percent nationally. Prior to that, in 2004, President Bush won by 5 percent among Catholics over the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, a Catholic, and by 3 percent nationally.
The voting results of the 2012 presidential election became the fifth time in the last six elections when the candidate who won the Catholic vote also won the election. The single exception occurred in 2000 when Vice President Al Gore won the Catholic vote by 2 percent and the national vote by .5 percent, but lost the presidency due to the Electoral College system.
Historically, party affiliation has evolved significantly. For the first half of the 20th century, the majority of Catholics were registered Democrats. Since the 1950s, more and more Catholics have been assimilated to high economic status, and shifted to Republican Party affiliation, though with limited impact on the Catholic vote.
Today, with a marked increase in Hispanic voters, most of whom are Catholic, the Catholic vote is becoming more broadly Democratic. In the last election, 71 percent of Hispanic voters favored President Obama. Still, white Catholics have been self-identifying as Republicans by historic margins. Indeed, 53 percent of white Catholics now favor the Republican Party, while only 39 percent of white Catholics favor the Democratic Party, the largest spread in modern history.
Nevertheless, what is particularly noteworthy is the very long history of the Catholic vote being so very closely aligned to the overall national vote.
While Catholics constitute approximately 25 percent of the electorate, they themselves have been closely divided between the Democratic and Republican parties. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that most subgroups of U.S. Catholics have consistently voted either Democratic or Republican. Notably, white Catholics who self-identify as politically conservative have voted for Republican nominees in recent elections. White Catholics who self-identify as politically progressive have voted for Democratic nominees, as have also Hispanic Catholics and other Catholic minorities.
Thus it remains one of the contradictions of the U.S. political scene that while “the Catholic vote” does not exist as such, nevertheless, the votes of Catholics still matter a great deal. Gaining the support and the votes of Catholic citizens has been essential to nearly every presidential win in contemporary times. Alternately, the defection of Catholic voters has played a pivotal role in some of the most contested and crucial congressional races from 1994 to 2014, thus positioning Catholic voters as the ultimate swing voters on key elections.
Father Weare, holds a doctoral degree in moral theology from the Catholic University of Louvain, and serves as pastor of St. Rita Church in Fairfax. His article was originally published as “De katholieke stem bestaat niet,” in the Belgian journal MO* Mondiaal Magazine.
From November 3, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.