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Posted January 30, 2008

Deciphering the Catholic Vote

Questions to consider during election year about Catholic identity, preferences, voting habits and influence:

How much is Catholic social justice teaching a factor in Catholics lives? How much power does it have to influence voting habits?

How much is Catholic moral teaching a factor in the way Catholics chose a candidate for office? How strong is our Catholic faith in giving direction to the leaders of this country: very strong, somewhat strong, fairly weak, very weak??? How much are Catholics at large aware of the influence their Catholic faith and teaching is having on them?

Report to Crisis Magazine on the American Catholic Vote

Summary of Findings:

The Catholic vote is the most important swing constituency in politics today. One third of Ronald Reagan’s huge non-Republican vote was Catholic. Catholics are concentrated in states which are decisive in Presidential elections: the Industrial Midwest, California and Florida, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut (a plurality of Catholic voters is found in the Industrial Midwest — as is the plurality of born-again or evangelical non- Catholic Christians). Nine of the ten states in which Bob Dole came closest to beating Bill Clinton — states in which Clinton received less than a majority, and which are worth 129 electoral votes — are all Catholic-rich (the exception is Tennessee).

Catholics are also over-represented in potential swing congressional districts along the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio river valley.

As others have pointed out, the Catholic vote is not monolithic. This is true: active Catholics constitute a coherent political constituency, inactive Catholics do not. What this means is that the political behavior and opinions of active Catholics can be explained, in part, by their Catholicism. For inactive Catholics, their “Catholicism” is not politically relevant.

That the active Catholic vote is a swing constituency is obvious from its Presidential preferences: it supported Jimmy Carter in 1976; Ronald Reagan in 1980 & 1984 (Mondale did better among active Catholics than did Jimmy Carter in 1980); Michael Dukakis in 1988; George Bush in 1992; Clinton very narrowly edged out Dole in 1996. Clearly active Catholics do not merely reflect the national results; the Republican presidential nominee received a greater share of the active Catholic vote (versus the national vote) in 1980, 1992, and 1996.

National election exit polls sponsored by the major news media do not ascertain respondents’ religious activism, and so prevent the differentiation between active Catholics and “ethnic” Catholics. Lumping Catholics together serves to obscure the decisively important trends afoot among active Catholics. In particular, active Catholics have been participating in the migration of other religiously active groups out of the Democratic Party.

Active Catholics are nearly as numerous (15% of the 1996 electorate) as the more famous white born-again, evangelical non-Catholic Christian constituency (18%).

Four distinct trends among active Catholics in the period 1960-1996 give cause for optimism that conservative candidates can appeal successfully to this constituency:

1. The growing number of self-identified conservatives among active Catholics, from 36% to 51%. Inactive Catholics have become more liberal during the same period.

2. The exodus of all Catholics, but especially active Catholics, out of the ranks of the Democratic Party (falling from 67% in 1960 to 40% in 1996). However, active Catholics are noticeably reluctant to align with the Republican Party, even though they are willing to vote for Republican candidates.

3. The increasing propensity of active Catholics to vote for Republican candidates. Democratic presidential candidates lost their lock on the Catholic vote in 1972, when both active and dormant Catholics cast a majority of their ballots for Richard Nixon. In 1980, not only did a majority vote of active Catholics vote for Republican Ronald Reagan, a greater percentage of them voted for Reagan than did the nation as a whole. This feat was repeated in 1992 and 1996.

4. Active Catholics represent an increasing share of the electorate. After a decline from 1960 – 1988 in the proportion of Catholic voters attending weekly mass, this figure (mass attendance among Catholic voters) has rebounded a bit in the 1990s, increasing the electoral influence of active Catholics.

While original research is needed to draw the explicit link between the Catholic Church’s social teachings and Catholic voter behavior, existing public opinion data supports the conclusion that active Catholics have a distinct political identity.

1. Active Catholics are unusually patriotic, and believe in American exceptionalism.

2. Active Catholics are not anti-government, although they favor spending cuts. And though half consider themselves conservatives, active Catholics do not trust unbridled free markets; they see a role for government activism in the economic arena.

3. Active Catholics are fans of the traditional family structure, and many feel the prevailing popular culture makes the task of raising children more difficult.

4. Active Catholics are distinctly tolerant and do not savor political villains. Example: a majority consider homosexual sex to be wrong, but they oppose discrimination against homosexuals.

5. On other social issues, majorities of active Catholics …

… oppose abortion (but less adamantly than expected);

… perceive sex between unmarried teenagers (14-16 years old) to be “always wrong”

— but not other cases of premarital sex;

… consider adulterous sex to be “always wrong;”

… would tighten laws to make divorce more difficult.

6. Catholics are concerned about the poor — and overwhelmingly support recent reforms in the welfare program.

7. Catholics embrace the principle of equity — and overwhelmingly oppose job quotas and other elements of affirmative action which offend the American ideal of equality. In fact, Alexis deTocqueville identified Catholics (163 years ago) as the group of Americans most supportive of the principle of human equality.

8. The sense in which active Catholics can be said to be conservative may be this: they appreciate the necessity of a morally well ordered society to the pursuit of happiness (rejecting extremes of both individualism and collectivism).

The explanation for the Catholic exodus from the Democratic Party seems to have been captured by Samuel Freedman in The Inheritance. The party committed these sins:

Identification with anti-Vietnam war protests (offensive to Catholic patriotism);

Advocacy of affirmative action and economic redistribution (offensive to Catholic standards of equity and fairness); Promotion of moral permissiveness (drugs, promiscuity) and individual irresponsibility (subsidizing illegitimacy, non-employment).

The active Catholic propensity to vote for Republican presidential candidates contributes to the growing dependence of the Republican Party on religiously active voters. This trend has provoked an adverse reaction among some in that party, who recommend avoiding “moral” or “social” issues. Yet this advice is contraindicated by the breath of the public’s perception that America is in the throes of a moral crisis, recently exacerbated by the rash of schoolyard shootings.