My Take: The myth and reality of the Catholic vote
The author argues there is not one Catholic vote, but three discrete Catholic votes.
February 20th, 2012
11:39 AM ET

My Take: The myth and reality of the Catholic vote

Editor's Note: Stephen S. Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

By Stephen S. Schneck, Special to CNN

For years, pollsters and political scientists have been stumped about Catholics.

On one hand, it’s been pretty clear that as American Catholics go, so goes the nation. George W. Bush narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2004 and won a second term. Barack Obama narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2008 and, with it, the White House.

It’s easy to see why Catholics are sometimes seen as the swing voters whose shifting political preferences swing elections.

Nevertheless, the idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance.

One explanation for why is the sheer number of Catholic voters and their now multigenerational assimilation into American society. About 35 million Catholics voted in 2008. That’s about 27% of all voters.

In the 19th century and for much of the 20th, Catholics self-consciously occupied a distinctive identity in America. Predominantly blue collar, they often lived in white ethnic neighborhoods, attended their own schools and colleges, established their own hospitals and charities, and experienced some level of discrimination.

In those years, Catholics associated overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party, which not only accommodated but promoted policies that advanced ethnic assimilation – everything from minimum wage laws to the GI Bill.

But by finally achieving that assimilation, Catholics in the last 50 years have lost much of their sense of special self-identity. For white Catholics, who are about 60% of the Catholic vote, their distinctiveness in class, education, income, and even ethnicity has grown increasingly ambiguous in America’s famous melting pot.

The melting pot has even transformed Catholics’ relationship to their church. Polling numbers released Friday by CNN about the White House contraception dust-up illustrate this: Only 11% of Catholics polled said they should always obey official church teachings on moral issues like birth control and abortion.

To put this differently, 88% of Catholics in the poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.

Today’s Catholics are picky and even suspicious about political signals from the institutional church.

Politically conservative Catholics bristle at do-gooder messaging from their bishops about climate change, immigration reform and Catholicism’s important “preferential option” for the poor. Politically liberal Catholics, meanwhile, are not much swayed by the righteous tone of church pronouncements about same-sex marriage and contraception.

And yet despite the pattern and consequences of assimilation, something Catholic is going on in politics. It’s evident when you drill down into the polling numbers. While there is not an obvious Catholic vote on the macro scale, there are three discrete "Catholic votes” that really matter in American elections.

The first of these is Latino Catholics.  Over the last three decades, Latino immigration has washed over the church in America like a flood.  From insignificant numbers 40 years ago, Latinos now constitute one-third of all American Catholics.

In the not-too-distant future, the majority of American Catholics will probably be Latinos.

Unlike the Italians, Poles, Irish and similar white ethnics, Latino Catholics have retained their distinctive identity as Catholics. Their voting behavior reflects that.

This is particularly true when considered from the perspective of the famous social teachings of the church, which emphasize social and familial solidarity, the common good, preference for the poor, tradition, and welcoming of the immigrant.

Latino American Catholics (excluding Cubans) strongly associated with the Democratic Party in 2008, with 67% of Latino Catholic voters supporting Obama. But the bloc includes swing voters, and turnout can be volatile. This vote can be critical in swing states like Colorado, Florida and New Mexico, and perhaps soon in states like Arizona and Texas.

A little deeper in the weeds are two other important groups of white Catholic voters, who might be called “intentional Catholics” and “cultural Catholics.”

An important social phenomenon for understanding intentional Catholics is what’s sometimes referred to as distillation. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year found that one-third of those raised Catholic have left the church. Fully 10% of the American electorate is formerly Catholic.

Because of assimilation, the glue of tradition and culture that previously inclined many to adhere to the church has lost its stickiness. Leaving is easy, whether by decision or atrophy, and little shame results.

Such disaffiliation happens for liberal reasons, conservative reasons, personal reasons and no reason at all. Some who leave still feel lingering allegiance to things Catholic, but many do not, and former Catholics do not have a distinctive political identity.

But as a result of disaffiliation, many Catholics who remain with the church are “distilled.”  More and more of those who remain are those who actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings. These “intentional Catholics” are the second of the three important groups of Catholic voters.

Largely white, with impressive education levels, mostly suburban and with moderate to high income levels, such Catholics are in evidence in weekly Mass attendance and parish activities. Politically active, intentional Catholic voters lean toward the Republican Party (with some youthful swing voters) and are motivated by economic issues and increasingly by opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

“Cultural Catholics” make up the third important group of Catholic voters. They are a complicated mix of mostly white Americans with lower levels of Mass attendance and higher levels of ambivalence toward Church authority.

These assimilated voters have varying education and income levels, often hail from urban and suburban communities, are more female than male - often with blue-collar roots - and are not intentionally but culturally oriented toward the church.

Because of the relative size of the Catholic population in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, swing voters in this group can be pivotal in presidential elections.

Many culturally Catholic voters are at odds with both conservatives and liberals on many issues. They are more socially conservative than the majority of Americans, but many are put off by the more intense social conservatism of intentional Catholics and evangelicals.

They are more economically populist than most Americans but are uncomfortable with the libertarian zeal of the tea party.  They are alienated from the lifestyle liberalism of many progressives but remain supportive of unions and governmental programs for the middle class.

The bishops may have little role in these voters’ personal faith, but cultural Catholics look to the church for the sacraments that mark the turnings of their lives and for the traditions that connect generations. Their religious sensibility might almost be described as ethnic.

Neither Obama nor any of the Republican candidates has clinched the deal for the voters in this group. Whoever does will probably win in November.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen S. Schneck.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Politics

soundoff (1,205 Responses)
  1. Justin

    What drives me nuts is how the word "Catholic" is used as a catch-all for anyone who merely claims they are Catholic. Nevermind those who were born into the Catholic Church and left it (but still claim they are), or disagree with most of the Church's teachings and yet, claim they are Catholic (see: CNN message board), and a whole host of other examples.

    If you don't follow the teachings of the faith, you are not Catholic. Plain and simple. Jesus didn't make concessions and neither should any Christian when it comes to their faith. Learn it and live it, or get out and stop scandalizing the Catholic faith and those who follow it faithfully.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Credenza

      Justin – Very well said. No Catholic worthy of the name "Practising" would vote for a man and a Party that not only supports, but encourages abortion.
      If a leader has no interest in the diginity of human life, then he can't be trusted with the lives of the citizens he leads. And if he openly defies God's Commandment "Thou shall not kill" He's just as shallow as some of these 'nominal Catholics'

      Abe Lincoln was at a dinner. The host said the blessing which ended with "God is on our side" . When he sat down, he said to Lincoln – "you didn't applaud like the others, Sir but God is on our side isn't he?" Lincoln said: " I'm wondering who in this nation is on GOD'S side?" This is true.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  2. Jstic

    Anyone who casts their vote for any candidate based on religion is a fool.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Credenza

      By the same token, anyone who dismisses God from human endeavours and openly votes for a leader or party who breaks the Commandment "Thou shall not kill" is casting pearls before swine.

      Not just abortion which is a blight on humanity, but the arab spring when unarmed, leaderless, inexperienced people in 10 Middle Eastern countries were encouraged by your leader to rise up and depose their leaders [who had armed forces, ammunition and tanks at their disposal ] He's a Christian but you think he's great for doing that. Had he been a Catholic you'd have pillaried him.

      What a bunch of drivelling hypocrites you are.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  3. Joe

    The thought of separation of church and state is a myth. The Christians pay huge money to candidates that vote to their religious ideals. That is why all these politicians try to pander to their every whim. Why else would religion even come up in politics. That is why health care and abortion is hot button topics not because of policy, but because of religious dogma. To all that think that this nation was built on religion, more than half of the founding fathers did not believe in god and believed religion had no place in politics.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Credenza

      The Founding Fathers were English. They left for the New World to escape the "restrictions" of the Catholic Faith. And what did they do?????
      Branded thieves and adulterers with hot irons
      Forced EVERYONE, young and old to attend their church THREE times a day for 2-3 hours per sitting with public flogging for those who missed.
      imprisoned 'dissenters' and physically punished or drove them out to starve in the wilderness.

      Don't insult our intelligence by spouting the MYTH that they wanted separation of church and state. OR that they were one jot better than the Catholic Church that was so awful.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  4. TownC

    Most Catholics are Catholics in name only. If only 11% believe the church has any influence on their moral views then the obvious conclusion would be that Catholics don't vote as a block. This might be good news to Obama who insulted Catholics last week. However, he also insulted all other religious people by trying to force them to act against their conscience. If Catholics believe they should act according to their conscience regardless of the church's positions, then they should be angry at an Administration that is forcing people to act in violation of their beliefs.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • justsayin

      Then the best route would be ban ANY contraception to those that identify as Catholic on an insurance policy offered
      by any employer in the USA

      February 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Credenza

      The figures of any poll are set in stone then??????? Muppet.

      I love the way you all chant MOST Catholics do theis or MOST Catholics do that. It's so juvenile. What I can tell you is that the church I attend has 5 Masses each Sunday and you're hard pushed to find a seat [BIG Church too!] Purleeeze give up your lies and twisting of facts – we Catholics aren't going anyplace.

      You are so ridiculous with this "Let's pick on the Catholics" fetish I was going to invent a NEW religion called the "Lesser spotted, outer Mongolian, nose-picking devil smotherers" and see how long it was before you invented another POLL on their miracle working potemtial.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  5. kyphi

    It's time we step up from church sharia law of the land. No one is asking "devout by the book Catholics" to give up their religion. But to make it law? Stop and think about that – a religious minority who wants the law of the United States to do what they say. That's downright scary
    In a perfect world it may not matter, except the world is full of secular deadbeat dads and religious judgmental people. It's a HUGE financial burden to single moms who don't choose abortion. Now if the catholic church wants to foot the bill for raising and providing that unplanned baby, ok.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  6. Nathan

    You people have no idea how many men I have blown in dark alleys and how many buckets of manchowder I've ingested over the past three weeks...

    Judging by the comments here, I'm never gong to be in a serious relationship.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  7. Denise E

    I agree with the author of this article. I think I fall into the culturally Catholic group of voters. I can't really agree with the Church on its rejection of the Health Care Reform Act and the requirement regarding birth control.
    I will be voting for President Obama's re- election. I find all of the negativity towards the rights of women and contraceptives, immigrants ( whether "legal or illegal"), unlimited campaign contributions without disclosure by corporations or individuals,etc.. offensive and alarming. President Obama is the only one I hear who is balanced in his remarks about our country and the issues that concern me.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  8. ALPHA

    The writer here neglects to mention that President Obama himself started this conversation a couple weeks ago when he compared himself and his policy to Jesus. Seriously? Mr. Obama thinks he is in the same league as Jesus?

    Typical Liberal arrogant thinking. The left always thinks they are smarter than the rest of us.

    Boot these bums in November!!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Denise E

      When did the President make this statement exactly?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Adam

      Feel like providing your sources, or will you just stick to your made up stories like a good little mindless GOP follower?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Donna

      Wow....if you feel like making up facts you should at least come up with something remotely plausible. You sound like a lunatic.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Jstic

      I call BS on Alpha. Sounds like you are drinking a bit too much of the GOP prepared kool aid, take a break from it, it will open your eyes to the real world.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • K8Er

      Athiest here, but just wondering. If christians are striving to be "christ like", isn't it then natural to compare yourself to jesus? WWJD literally asks everyone to compare themselves with him and try to be like him. So what's the problem?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  9. Mathilda

    There are certain issues that all Catholics find themselves facing one time or another, contraceptive. As a Catholic you are instructed that contraception something that the Church frowns on. But we have all used some form of birth control in our lives. Some for their health, some to prevent pregnancy, some to keep them safe from disease. But it is our right to choose, not someone sitting in Rome, who has never had a family, put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads. I cherish my faith, but there are many things that the Church needs to become more modern on. We can not live in the Middle Ages. If I am going to hell because I reserved the right to how big my family is, then I feel I am going to have plenty of company.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Denise E

      I agree with you..

      February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  10. XxMacleodxX

    I wish I was in a group to be lumped together with my fellow groupies to be targeted by spiteful old men who grab at power and destroy real families

    February 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  11. Daze

    "...three discreet votes..." ?? Who is the illiterate *@#% here, CNN or Mr. Schneck, who doesn't know the difference between discreet and discrete?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  12. Dave

    The problem with Religion and Politics is Religious opinion is taught through doctrine Not learned through Individual experiences What good is a Government For By and Of the People if its mandate is by ONE (GOD) Sounds like a Dictatorship!!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • XxMacleodxX

      Keanu Reeves can forget about getting my vote.....

      February 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  13. JG

    I worship the Sun. It makes the most sense. I can see it, it's not all knowing, and without it we're all dead.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  14. Adam

    Dunno if their vote is a myth, but their magic sky wizard certainly is.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  15. george b

    American catholics like those in Nebraska believe the catholic vote will not effect the upcoming election. Wrong!. BenNnelson and Bob Cherrey are not running for senate because they see the writing on the wall. Nebraska conservatives feel they were betrayed by Nelson and the demo-crates. Although Nebraskans don't fully trust the republicans, they know what Obama has to offer.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  16. Wake up America

    When are you going to wake up to ObamaNation ?
    This dictator is ruling with a iron fist

    February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • JamieIRL

      We'll wake up as soon as you stop boring us to sleep with this kind of nonsense. Really, he's ruling with an "iron fist"? Riiiggghhhhttt...

      February 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      HA HA HA HA HA! Thanks for the laughs!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Mookystyx

      I guess you forgot to set your alarm.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • John

      Common sense will win – all who try to divide and discount Catholics will find that "American Idol process" is not the way to elect president.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Donna

      Yes, President Obama, who is battled at every turn by Republicans who would rather see the country fail than see him re-elected, is functioning as a dictator. Right.......

      February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  17. Think About It

    Oh, that's just great! Now they want someone with Catholic ideals to be POTUS so once in the WH they can be getting direction on issues affecting all American people from no less than the pope! How's that for a sneaky way to obliterate the Separation of Church and State!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Dave

      The only place the Catholic vote is NOT a myth when it comes to contraception is in Rick Santorum's mind!

      "The Pope is gonna be running the country if Santorum......." Set your watch back 50 years!!! They tried that nonsense when Kennedy ran.

      If and that is a BIG IF, the Pope was running the country after Santorum was elected would that be any worse than the likes of the "Moral Majority" or "Focus on the Family" or Billy Graham or John Hagy having a "Hot Line" into the 2nd floor living quarters at the White House? Why can't people see that faith is a PRIVATE PERSONAL THING that has NO PLACE in the US Government??

      February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • John Read

      Hay what about all the Mormon things that were in here about Romney.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Credenza

      Neither Romney nor Santorum are naive enough to think they could make any PERSONAL laws in America.Only Obama likes wantsto by-pass Congress and do as he [And his hero-worshipping groupies let him!] In fact Santorum has stated clearly that the government shouldn't interfere with beliefs.

      It was OBAMA who set the precedent of state interference in faith over the contraception ruling. Stupid man! Joe Biden and other Dems told him it was a bad idea but would he listen? NO

      Experts told him that Solyndra was a very bad risk,did he listen NO But he threw $535 Million of your money at them anyway!
      George Bush had already refused Solyndra on the advice of experts and saved you $535 Million. That makes GWB look really intelligent!

      BUT the Abortion Law was put in place based on lies and misinformation so it could br overturned -–for example
      If a man is condemned to death by Law for murder which is breaking the Law, but the evidence was falsified and misrepresented, then the Law can be overturned.
      Not just Santorum but millions of people disagree with abortion based on a seriously flawed judgement.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  18. Tom in San Diego

    If you think "the idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous" you're about to get a lesson in life suffient to make your own wisdom patently ridiculous....

    I think the Catholic vote is symbolic to much of the country...and I'm a Lutheran, LoL...

    February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  19. Frank fox

    If we get a catholic president he will remove Lincoln from his chair and replace him with virgin mary !!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Hunchback

      That might not be a bad idea. This country could use some virtue.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Adam

      Mary was a s|ut, how would that be virtue?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  20. Hunchback

    I'm Catholic and the my Church hasn't told me who to vote for, all she has done is defended herself and countless others to be able to practice their faith. The media likes to make this into a whole women's health thing and demonize the Church (same old story, just a different decade/century/millennium). The Church will be there long after the US goes away. She has outlived every major empire and will continue to do so. People don't seem to learn from history. Anti-Catholcism, and really anti-Chrstiianity leads to violence and confusion in society. Always has (since the beginning of Christianity) and always will.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Frank fox

      What leads to violence is not other then your church, just take a look a history; this cult is responsible for millions of deaths,and as we read this article there could be another child being abuse!, we do not want any more of this..

      February 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Adam

      Actually, you are 100% incorrect. The Egyptian Empire lasted nearly 3,500 years. Christianity/Catholicism was only invented a little over 2,500 years ago. And yes, it was invented. Religion is of man and by man.

      Side Note: Hinduism has been around for over 5,000 years. Double how long your particular flavor of "god" has been.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Where is the Egyptian Empire now? And also, I didn't say Christianity has been around forever. It's been around for 2000 years and I guess I should qualify, in the western world, she has outlived every major empire in that time. She will outlive Hinduism too.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • spacial

      Well said.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Adam

      "Where is the Egyptian Empire now?"

      Have you not noticed how people are waking up and leaving religion in record numbers? Heck, in Europe, where Catholicism/Christianity used to be strongest, the majority of people no longer believe in any sort of deity or symbol of such. 20 years ago in the 1990 Census, US citizens responded at a rate of 95% saying they believed in a god or gods. In the 2010 Census, that number dropped to 80%.

      Within 100-150 years, Christianity will be gone, and some new form of magic sky wizard will be born to take its place. Eventually, humans will advance enough to completely reject these fairy tales, but that won't happen in my lifetime 🙁

      February 20, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Apollonia

      Your only excuse is the US-educational system which allows too much religious and too less scientific education to publish so much falsehood. Nobody has more victims in history as the RCC: from killing other Christians to non-Christians, natives, women, children, for the longest times Jews, because they are the people who killed Jesus. The RCC fought and fight scientific knowledge as long as possible, medicine, (astro-)physik, biology, psychology ... they will sacrifice what and whom they can to hold on as much power as possible till one day the have to concur to the truth.
      That is the 2000 years old history of the RCC – still leaded by a group of old men seperated from reality for decades.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.