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. Elizabeth/CA

    What would Christian theocracy be like?

    * No dietary law (No kosher/halal)
    * No clothing law
    * Gay marriage banned (?)
    * Blue Laws all over the nation
    * What else?

    February 20, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      A world under Thocratic rule? Equals... Gods Kingdom.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  2. Eleanor Greene

    How do we know that the catholics are voting.? Do we have to say our "religion" when we vote? The word catholic means universal as in a widespread believe, not a membership in a building. What are you people afraid of?

    February 20, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  3. Judas

    I think it's due time the church starts paying taxes. They have already corrupted a lot of government policy, we need to put a stop to their agenda or else America will turn into the middle east.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Louis

      Not only churches are tax exempt; synagogues, mosques, hindu temples etc. don't pay taxes either...

      Since the majority are Christians by far, that's why the government favor Christians (despite first amendment)

      February 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Louis

      Jews control the government too, despite being 2% of the population.
      Synagogues and Jewish centers do not pay taxes either

      February 20, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Ellinor

      Religious places are tax exempt all over the world.....

      February 20, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      they cause more damage than they help.. Many of the abused children are mentally ill and others committed suicide. The worst crimes were the cover ups, we all pay as these pedo priest are around children today and many victims living off social services..

      One other note.. the catholic church will only involve themselves in marketing and profitable ventures. Catholic charities is financed primarily by our tax dollar, grant money. If people think it isn't profitable.. just look at the wealth in the church. Next, look at all the schools, churches and hospitals they closed because they were not as profitable.

      Gold lined robes, anyone?

      February 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • HispanicMan

      The Catholic Church is part of the Empire of False Religion and soon, VERY soon, the political governments and its rulers are going to see through their hypocrisy and corruption and how they meddle in world affairs with murderous intent and bloodshed. These very governments that the church is relying on and voting for protection of their wicked ways are the very ones who are going to bring them to ruin. This is all bible prophecy.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • RusTnuts

      Which is the pedophile in that picture? Probably all of them but the guy in the dark glasses is the only one that got caught...and the rest are protecting him.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  4. Greek

    I wish all Non-Christians were kicked out from this country..... having 247 million is more than enough rather than 310 million!!

    February 20, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      non christians do good deeds without the promises of here-after.. sort of makes them the genuine group.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  5. pervert bishops

    wonder what these silly, few, catholics would say if Muslims demanded that surgery is against their belief? Or medicine? Would that mean that Americans who already had jobs with Muslim organizations, with health insurance, be required to quit their jobs in order to get insurance?

    February 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Louis

      There are only 0.6% Muslims vs. 80% Christians in the U.S.... don't forget that!

      February 20, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      ah.. so it's not a religious 1st amendment issue? Good point. If volume is what counts, then Obama is the winner here for sure.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Louis

      the 1st amendment is really ignored by the government now.... otherwise we wouldn't have Christian holidays and 'In God We Trust' as national motto. Seperation of church and state is really BS :/

      February 20, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • karen

      I wonder what the aclu would say I'd these comments were being made about anyone other than Catholics. Discrimination is still strong in the us unfortunately.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  6. NJ

    This country needs to move more towards theocracy... the more closer to God we come, the more blessed we are.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • LinCA

      I think you forgot your sarcasm tags.
      The comment won't render properly without enclosing it with <sarcasm> and </sarcasm>

      February 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      yes,, I suggest you pray all illnesses away. Maybe go back to bloodletting, pretend the earth is flat. Well your religion believed that long ago. Now they just stick with the invisible and ask everyone else to prove their invisible doesn't exist. Too funny.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  7. pervert bishops

    when Obama ran for office he stated that he wanted to reduce abortions.. That's correct and that is also the sensible and realistic goal. No one can end, but we can reduce. Contraceptives reduces abortions, fact.

    Contraception is also a personal choice that should be offered to ALL Americans and no matter who insures them, that is their right. Some foreign religion, the vatican, has no rights here. It is peoples right to religion, not religions right to rule people. If your beliefs make you anti-contraceptive, then don't take any.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • NJ

      Stop using daddys laptop and go take your phycho pills............. OK good night

      February 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      Understand, you have tremendous difficulty dealing logically. Noticed, you are from NJ? Must be a zombie follower of the governor.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Louis

      Northern NJ still has strict blue laws where almost everything is closed on Sundays by law... + Good Friday is a state holiday 😮 No wonder why they love theocracy

      February 20, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  8. Ex atheist

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things...

    † Atheism makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things.
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, alcoholics and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate!

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator ††

    February 20, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      lololol hahaha lololol ... tear. Please stop, your cracking me up!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Religious indoctrination of children is child abuse and your post is the result.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • The_Mick

      This is a joke, right? If not, seek knowledge: the mind is a terrible thing to waste!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Smart Human

      Gay guy alert!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      It's either a joke or someone left a computer on after hours at the asylum again. It's the only plausible explanation!!

      February 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • newsreel

      >>> the Bible is always right <<<

      Hitler and all other dictator also thought only they are right. You just admitted you compared the bible favorably with dictatorship. Thanks for being clear, and give us reason to avoid it.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Way back in 2006, the John Templeton Foundation published the results of its study on prayer and its effect on people who were suffering from major heart conditions and undergoing heart surgery. The study was double-blind and used a control group. Two groups were chosen, one of which were prayed for and the other which was not, but neither were told which group they were in. A third group served as a control were prayed for and told this.

      After 2.4 million dollars invested from the Templeton Foundation and 2.3 million invested from the federal government, here are the results:

      More people (59%) in the control group suffered more complications than in the groups who did not know if they were being prayed for (51%).
      18% of those in the uninformed prayer group suffered major complications (including heart attack) as compared to 13% in the group that did not receive prayers.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      BTW the John Templeton Foundation is a relilgious organization!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things

      February 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I gave an example .. where's your supporting evidence?
      My example was a study done by a religious organization hell bent on proven prayer changes things & it failed.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:05 pm |

    no one can force their faith on the other, and for christians, many die for their faith because they feel very secure after receiving the holy spirit within. I have so I'm not afraid of the day I will die. I know he is with me and there is nothing to be afraid of The unknown is always a little hard but if you have the light within you, it will be easier to see it with your soul after your physical eyes are gone. i pity those who don't believe!!!!!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  11. Mr Chihuahua

    The people in the pic look like they have scurvy. Somebody get that pale chick in the center an orange before she faints lol!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm |

    I don't agree with a lot of what the writer believes. I am Catholic, was raised Catholic and attend mass "regularly". I even go to confession, which many of my more conservative friends do not. BUT I do not feel compelled to vote as the church seems to want me to. I will not vote over ONE issue. I vote Democratic and have mostly throughout my life. I believe that they care more for the poor, the sick and those in need. My Bible readings tell me that this is what Jesus would do. I can't vote for a candidate that says, "I made it- you make it.' In the meantime, you are on your own.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Donna Maria

      I have been a Catholic all my life. The wisdom I have gain in my life is that that Chruch has been right on the subject of faith and morals. When I strayed from those teachings, I got into trouble. Fortunately, the sacrament of reconcilation is helpful and healing. From now on, I will stand with the Church.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  13. zephyr

    Anyone who votes along religious lines is throwing both their vote and their country into the toilet. There are too many more important reasons to vote for a candidate.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Mike

      You are missing the point. The vote is decided, among other things, based on the implications of moral and ethical principles, regardless of where those stem from.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:20 pm |


    February 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  15. jon

    The Catholic vote is a myth for the following reasons: no one party is just. The Republicans are right-wing zealots, while the Dem's insist promoting abortions. Catholics are caught having to decide between two parties, and which is the lesser of two evils? In my mind, it's the Democrats. I tend to hold my nose when I vote, but the Democrats are the lesser of two evils.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Attack my church, I vote against you

      Maybe but leave my religion alone. The State has no right to tell a religion what to believe.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • jon

      I have no idea what you're trying to say. You know, Catholicism has a long history of promoting logical thought: Augustine, Aquinas, Maritain, even Aristotle. It's ok to speak in syllogisms and logic...as a matter of fact, 99% of so-called "arguments" I see are based upon emotion and media soundbites and impressions, lacking in any sort of disciplined thinking.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • McGuffin

      "Catholicism has a long history of promoting logical thought" - HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      February 20, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • McGuffin

      I would agree, Jon. I'm not Catholic, but it's difficult to choose between a party that believes women have a right to murder babies and a party that champions greed and warfare. It would seem that actual Christians would fall somewhere in between: believing in charity, helping the poor, and protecting all life (no abortion, no guns, and no wars).

      February 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • jon

      McGuffin, let me guess: you get your news from Letterman and Leno? You are among the truly ignorant. Revel in it.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  16. bigJohn4USA

    Funny how everyone blasts the Catholics at ruffly 20% if the voters, Yet everyone is afraid to stomp on the toes of the muzzies that are less than 1%. Just saying.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Guest 10

      I hear you bigJohn4USA. Should any articles be about the Muslim, all hell would break lose & world war three would break out.
      Anyone bashing Islam would be put to death, one way or the other. But as a Catholics, one is taught to be patient and love one's enemies. That is the truth and that is what the Bible says and the Church teaches.

      February 23, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  17. Wanderer81

    I love American sectarian violence...the most subtle in the whole world. Go journalists!!!

    February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  18. Smart Human

    The catholic vote is obsolete because the world now sees what a fringe group they are filled with child molesters, perverts and guilt-laden freaks. Their secret is out.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • jhon

      Tell that to the politicians.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  19. NaySay

    Good article. I wonder: is there still a Jewish vote?

    February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • B-Squared

      A good question, if you're being serious. But considering Jews only makeup about 2% of the population I don't think politicians go much further than espousing a regard for Israel in an attempt to woo their votes.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  20. jasie

    If Obama can force Catholics to go against their beliefs and conscience, he can force anyone else to go against conscience and personal beliefs

    February 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      If you're referring to birth control .. NO ONE is making any Catholic USE birth control or go against their beliefs. I don't even like Obama's politics but I'll defend the truth.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Forcing them to substidize birth control is the same thing. If you don't see that, I am sorry. I can do nothing for you.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm |

      No one can force anyone to a particular faith, maybe influence him/her. The purpose is to save a soul, however never by force. Just educate yourself and be strong and ask for guidance if you feel strange with your new faith. Christianity is the best one, but it s all about suffering. In the Orthodox faith its the most suffering. we hold lent and serious lent must be preserved to really feel the holy spirit. We do not eat breakfast before receiving holy communion. You must suffer and wait to get your reward. Just as in life, you must work to get money and you must work hard so you can retire later. work work work so heaven will be rest rest rest but you have to believe to feel the holy spirit and reach heaven!!!!!!!!!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • A Catholic who agrees with President Obama

      Give it a rest already. President Obama isn't forcing anyone to go against their beliefs. I'm a Catholic who uses birth control. Excommunicate me if it's such a big freaking deal.

      The Catholic Church shouldn't get to hide behind their own religious freedom cries to FORCE their "leaders" views on contraception on ANYONE else, especially not on their non-Catholic employees. And by the "leaders" I mean all the MEN at the top.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • elladitsa

      No one can force anyone to a particular faith, maybe influence him/her. The purpose is to save a soul, however never by force. Just educate yourself and be strong and ask for guidance if you feel strange with your new faith. Christianity is the best one, but it s all about suffering. In the Orthodox faith its the most suffering. we hold lent and serious lent must be preserved to really feel the holy spirit. We do not eat breakfast before receiving holy communion. You must suffer and wait to get your reward. Just as in life, you must work to get money and you must work hard so you can retire later. work work work so heaven will be rest rest rest but you have to believe to feel the holy spirit and reach heaven!!!!!!!!!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Yahwey or the highway

      Jonathan .. having an insurance company cover birth control is the same as forcing someone to use it?! I agree your logic is sorry & can do nothing for me.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • McGuffin

      No Catholic has to use birth control as a consequence of Obama's decision. Don't be ridiculous.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:32 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.