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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. rdg18

    I will not be voting for any democrats in November!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      It is a pure form of truth, realism..

      February 20, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  3. Edgar Sousa

    The Catholic Church has been around for over two thousand years. President Obama has no idea how deep the Catholic belief is. He has no right forcing Catholic organizations to do things they think are wrong. No one but God knows what goes on in the voting booth. Barack Obama does not. He will lose.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      the catholic church is a bronze age concoction, ends there.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  4. Appalled!

    I'm speechless...

    February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  5. Richard

    Just curious-the Bible says nothing at all about contraception, so where does this teaching come from?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  6. jhon

    "Is the Catholic Vote a Myth" looks like one of those ESPN headlines.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      the religion is..

      A sod-omiz-ed victim from ages 8 and 9 by catholic priests, one a bishop todayl

      February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  7. Mindie in Indie

    The only credibility the Catholic Church has is what you give it – and then you too, are protecting priests who abuse little children just like Penn State did with Sandusky.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • jhon

      So Penn State nad the Los Angeles school system also have no credibility?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  8. JohnZ

    Far more significant is the ex-Catholic vote. I went to Catholic schools, Catholic high school, Catholic College, and it took tht long for me to figure out how incredibly corrupt the organization is, and how incredibly far from the teachings of Jesus Christ modern day fundamentalist Christians have drifted. The kingdom of the lord is within. Within. There are millions of us ex-Catholics out here, and we're not pleased with the GOP.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  9. dhondi

    Is CNN a tabloid?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  10. jon

    I see the state media is back to bashing Christians the day after the Whitney Houston Church love fest...they wasted no time

    February 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Hunchback

      CNN and MSNBC and others are controlled by the Obama White House. They are his pawns.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • PopeJon

      SO why are you two posting here? looking for a fight?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  11. Brenda O'Connor

    Proud Catholic voting for Obama!

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

      What has he done to make your life better?

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

      Apparently a non-practicing Catholic since you seem to have no problem with Obama's attack on church doctrine

      February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Cafeteria Catholic... which is not Catholic at all.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Mindie in Indie

      The only credibility the Catholic Church has is what you give it – and then you too, are protecting priests who abuse little children just like Penn State did with Sandusky.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Justin

      Do you realize as a "proud" Catholic, you cannot vote for someone who openly supports abortion, gay marriage, etc.? This is going against your faith, if you are actually practicing it.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Joe from Indy

      It's not Obama's job to make your life better. It's your job.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  12. Willie

    Courting the religious vote is what's killing the republican party. Traditionally, the republican party was the party for business and economy. In recent years, family values has been introduced by the religious right. Family values and Business mix like oil and water, and while it seemed to work in the 1980's, the two ideals are clearly clashing now, and potential candidates are left campaigning on egg shells rather than soapboxes. The result is they either look like pansies, frauds or potential dictators. Unless the republican party goes back to its earlier stance before they adopted religion, they will continue to become less and less relevant to American voters. Atheism is growing faster than any religion in America, like it or not.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  13. nrog

    Well, we can't blame Catholics for Santorum. Most Catholics are reasonable people. The majority of GOP voters are hard core protestants.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  14. Hunchback

    "The most dangerous activity of countless Catholic clergy is the way in which they 'mope about', spreading despondency. Favorite topics are the 'dangers of a new time', 'the present emergency', 'the gloomy future'. Prophecies are made about the speedy downfall of National Socialism or at the very least mention is made of the transience of all political phenomena, compared with the Catholic Church which will outlive them all. National Socialist achievements and successes are passed over in silence. ... There is thus a deliberated undermining of the very basis of the National Socialist program of reconstruction, the people's trust in leadership of the state." – Adolf Hitler

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

      He was a real winner.. not.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  15. TaylorKH

    I have to blame Catholics who make it into the Legislative, Judicial and Executive Branches of the Government and then set a truly bad example for other Catholics and Christians. These are the ones responsible for misleading other Catholics and Christians in America – very, very poor leadership. Vice President Biden, Congresswoman Pelosi and Administrator Sabellius – please clean up your acts. If you can not follow Church teaching, then you are unsuitable as true leaders. Look to the leadership of President's Washington and Lincoln, both of whom lived their faith fully in office. They were not afraid to give thanks and credit to God for our great nation. They EMBRACED and FEARED God while you push him away in favor of gross errors in judgment regarding morality.

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

      I wish the bishops would step up (like 30 years ago) and start admonishing those "catholic" politicians who are causing grave scandal by teaching public dissent from the objective Truth.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I teach my children to never "embrace and fear" anyone ... a relationship like that makes a person schizophrenic.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • JEBUW

      Yikes!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Justin

      Amen, Hunchback! Where are the excommunications these days? Pelosi?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  16. HispanicMan

    What I would like to know is... Why does it matter what the Catholics think about anything that has to do with politics? Is this what Jesus would want them to do, to take sides on issues and takes sides with political governments or political ideologies? I thought that the Catholics believed in Gods Kingdom and that Jesus, as King of Gods Kingdom, would bring the true peace and security that is promised in the bible. Why have Catholics strayed so far away from bible teachings and are now deep into meddling with the affairs of governments and politicians? What side would Jesus take if he were walking here on earth right now? It seems to me that Catholicism is so far removed from serving God faithfully, that they should hardly be considered as voice to those who are true Christians.

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

      Catholics complied the Bible, and are in charge of safeguarding it against heresy. Learn history.

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

      @Hunchback... I am a bible student and I have never heard before that Catholics were commissioned to protect the bible from heresy. Was this before or after Hitler was blessed by the Pope during his massacre of so many millions of innocent people during WWII? I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and I saw with my own eyes Hitler being blessed on camera by the Pope and if I am correct, Hitler was a devout and staunch Catholic. So where was Catholicism during this hypocrital time of war? I could name quite a few other instances, but I'll just give you this one to defend for now.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Hunchback ... the new testament was cobbled together by Christians (original Catholics), the old testament was carefully crafted by Jewish folks.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Justin

      Actually, the Jews couldn't agree themselves on what should be included in their own Scripture! So much for the "carefully crafted" Old Testament.

      Hunchback is correct. The Church councils ultimately defined what the Canon of Scripture was to be. Luther took some books out, since they didn't line up with his theology. The Church has always guarded against heresy. This is why councils were called in the first place!

      Learn your history, people!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  17. Skyler

    Some Catholics – and other religious aligned organizations – claim to reach out to the poor and misguided and "unenlightened" out of the goodness of their heart, expecting nothing in return. But they absolutely DO expect something in return. The promise of "eternal life." That's pretty selfish. I wonder if the Catholics who show up unexpected at my door would continue their neighborhood crusade even if they knew there was no ethereal reward at the end of it. Would you continue worshipping as you do if you accepted that the promises you've been told have been proven to be incorrect? (which I believe they have). Not a faith thing. I mean, you know for sure. I am confident your views about helping others will suddenly take a back seat to your more immediate and realistic time and money needs.

    Show me a Catholic (or member of any other faith) who is willing to put their lives aside and help those less fortunate than them, and who would do so even if they were convinced there was no afterlife, and that person will have my unequivocal respect and support. The fact is, though, that those who don't "believe" yet still go out of their way to help their fellow human, are far more selfless than any person of "faith." All religious "meekness" and "piety" unerringly comes with an alterior motive attached.

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

      Dude you got me by the balls. I've been thinking really hard to try to refute your point but I can't find any right now.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Momlove

      Many great saints, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Therese of Liseaux, most recently, had dark forebodings about whether heaven existed. God permits this as a way of purifying their souls. These souls are so pure they love God and work to help othes through works of mercy or through their prayers even without a reward in sight. I myself have been so blessed by God, so immensely blessed, that should I die in the next moment I would be happy if I were never rewarded in the next life. St. Paul was so concerned and so in love with his fellow man that he told God he would happily forego heaven if the Lord would convert and draw the sinners he loved to Himself. You are on to something. Don't stop!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  18. Rich

    Please remember that this University has a reputation of being very liberal and therefore his "studies" and "opinions" are way too liberal for most Catholics. When the Bishops letter against contraception was read in my parish it was greeted with cheers.
    My parish has a large contingency of middle class South Americans. The growth of the Catholic Church and increase of new priests are from this area. You can read and hear these type opinions in some liberal Colleges and Universities whether it be about this topic or even more controversial subjects. They of course are what we call "Cafeteria Catholics" and are threatening the leadership of our church with their "enlightened opinions". They put themselves up as leaders. They are false Catholics!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  19. Suzsper

    In the article about the Catholic vote, the word "discreet" was used, when I believe the author means "discrete" Different spelling, different meaning!

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

      Atheism might be growing among young white voters but America is rapidly becoming Hispanic by numbers. Don't think for one minute they are atheists.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  20. Jenney

    Martog, your post is very true and not only fits the catholic religion but all religions and all religious books of prayer

    February 20, 2012 at 5:44 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.