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. CarrotCakeMan

    Catholics have large, strongly connected extended families, and that's bad for the GOP as well as the GOP bishops. No matter how many times the bishops try to force-feed anti-gay hate speech to lay Catholics from the pulpit, lay Catholics will place their own LGBT son or daughter, cousin, uncle or niece and their well-being above the hate speech from the GOP bishops. If the GOP gives the most anti-gay candidate, Santorum, either slot on the GOP nomination, we can be sure a much greater percentage of lay Catholics will vote for the president and Democratic candidates.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Glades2

      Many of my fellow Catholics, especially in the Northeast, turned their backs on the Word of Jesus and voted their wallets in the last election – and paid a very high price!!! Sadly, had it not been for the errors the other candidate would have won, as statistics showed, but many considered their money more valuable than their faith in Him and what He expected of them...

      February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  2. Glades2

    I'm old enough to remember when "the Catholic vote" was a true statement in many northern (union) cities, but today it would mean more if it were referred to as "the Christian vote", since that covers all believers – and hopefully all follow the Lord's Word when it comes to everything we face in today's so-called modern world...

    February 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm |


    February 22, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • *facepalm*

      Yup, who actually cares about facts. Personal anecdotes are always more reliable.

      Also, the Caps Lock key is the one just to the left of the 'A' key. Please press it.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  4. WillieLove

    CATHOLIC TRADITION – The church is founded on Peter.

    WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS – Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church. Peter was a man like you and me. Jesus called Peter Satan in Matthew 16:23 when Peter rebuked Jesus dying. When Cornelius tried to worship Peter, Peter responded, "Stand up; I myself also am a man." (Acts 10:26). The pope needs to remember Acts 10:26 when he has men bowing to him and kissing his hand like he is worthy of worship.

    1 Corinthians
    3:11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
    21:42 Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected [Jesus], the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?

    February 22, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  5. WillieLove

    CATHOLIC TRADITION – The mass. Through transubstantiation, the wafer/host and the wine supposedly become the actual blood and body of Jesus Christ when the priest prays over them. He is supposed to be sacrificed over and over again on Roman Catholic altars.

    WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS – Jesus died once for sins, never to be repeated. He sits on the right hand of God and does not reappear in the mass as a mass of blood and flesh.

    10:12 But this man [Jesus], after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
    10:13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
    10:14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.
    10:15 Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before,
    10:16 This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;
    10:17 And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.
    10:18 Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.
    19:30 When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

    1 Corinthians
    11:24 And when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he brake it [bread], and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
    11:25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
    11:26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come (not for the forgiveness of sins or to receive Jesus).

    February 22, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • Don Schenk

      What does the rest of the Bible say?
      John 6:15-71
      Matthew 26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-19
      1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4, 5:7, 10:16, 11:23-29

      February 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  6. WillieLove

    CATHOLIC TRADITION – Venerating/worshipping images. Pope bows to statues of Mary, Catholics worship the eucharist and have statues/candles in their homes and churches.

    WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS – It is idolatry to venerate images. We are not even supposed to make them.

    20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
    20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God...

    February 22, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • Mark

      WILLIE We don't care what the bible says. We have better, (and more new and intelligent) books to read. Get help, you're brainwashed.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Don Schenk

      God commanded the creation of "images":
      Exodus 25:18-19
      Numbers 21:8-9
      1 Kings 6:23-29, 7:25-45

      February 22, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  7. Rheinlander

    God Bless the haters and doubters.

    February 21, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Rheinlander..just like the starving children of Africa we do not need more of your gods blessings on us. He done enough damage, to human minds and civilization..he will have a lot to answer for if he comes back...thats why you have not seen him.

      February 21, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  8. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you fat.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    February 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  9. CatholicSue

    I really appreciated this editorial. It helped me understand where I fit into the picture. I am a cultural Catholic. The social teachings of the church would require me to vote Democratic, but the Pro-Life and Family Issues would require me to vote Republican. In some ways this is freeing because I can actually weigh the issues and the candidates and I am not obligated by conscience to vote for one pary or the other.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • hippypoet

      wow, you are a tool!

      how about having an opinion of your own for once...just imagine the possibilities!!

      February 21, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • pthelms

      @ Hippypoet: stop smoking weed and read, my friend. Sue said she has that opportunity to think for herself, that's what "I can actually weigh the issues and the candidates and I am not obligated by conscience to vote for one pary [sic] or the other" means.

      February 22, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  10. pervert bishops

    Is this the organization you want teaching moral;s? This is what the catholic bishops pulled off to distract others from the truth about the destruction to children's lives.

    They created a report to make others believe the abuses where not significant and wen to John Jay College to do so.

    The John Jay report was NOT an independent study. It was paid for by the US bishops in a ploy to fool others, since JJ is a law school, the report, would trick others into thinking this was legal (JJ now states the report as grossly inaccurate) The data for this 'study' was to be gotten from the bishops.. Rather odd they'd pay some one to pull what is ultimately their own data only, just part of their game.

    The bishop who abused me, pedophilia, was one who they asked for info. Other bishops who abused, also responded. In speaking with victims, they were not even considered as victims (not counted) making the percentages appear far smaller than they actually are..

    As victims (the true source) we counted the number of child abusing priests and bishops and found the following; 1. almost every single diocese in the US has had volumes of abuses. 2. Many had 15 to 20% who abused.

    Now the worst crime of all.. The Cover Ups.. Small children denied help because the pope and bishops cared for their reputation over the lives of small children abused. Small children repeatedly threatened and denied help, left to live in the pain alone.

    As long as politicians protect this organization, the truth will never be exposed and victims will continue to suffer.The real truth is that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg, much deeper and filthier.

    Many victims committed suicide and others mentally ill due to the abuses.. the cover ups demanded threats.

    We need the good and caring to help in exposing this filthy catholic church. The truth is the greatest healer and the catholic church wants to deny the truth.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  11. Religious indoctrination IS child abuse

    In the same way as Amnesty Int'l works tirelessly to free political prisoners the world over, we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them.. -Richard Dawkins

    February 21, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Thank goodness Richard has opinions that you can copy/paste.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • A fellow troll

      Thank god this forum allows people to post without ever having to say anything of substance. Otherwise trolls like @Uncouth wouldn't be able to post a thing.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • IceT

      Dawkins sums it up very well, it seems the point was in the name.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Mark

      Dawkins is a GREAT writer. !!!!!!!!!!! I like to paraphrase that statement this way, so you can keep the sentence flowing, and capitalize the main point: "Forcing a child into a RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE."

      February 22, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  12. Reality

    Only for the newbies:--–>

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country "ain't" going to help a "pro-life" presidential candidate, i.e Mitt Romney, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the "Immoral Majority" rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The "Immoral Majority" you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million "Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers" of aborted womb-babies" whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million "IM" voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM.

    And the irony:

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the "Stupid Majority"?)

    The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • pervert bishops

      You can never end abortions. You can however help reduce abortions. And that is something a kinder person might do. In fact that is exactly what Obama said he would try to do. That make sense, it's realistic and the logical choice.

      Contraceptives does just that, helps reduce abortion.

      The other side, making it illegal; 1. girls getting ally abortions, a painful death in many cases. 2. arrests and destroyed families due to those arrests 3. unwanted children who live unloved, traumatic and chaotic lives

      February 21, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Reality

      Obama rode to the Blood-Red House on the backs of 35+million aborted womb-babies!!!

      What BO can do to at least lift part of the Immoral Majority leader label?

      Immoral Majority you ask??

      The 78 million voting "mothers and fathers" of aborted womb babies !!! (2012 -1973 Rowe vs. Wade = 39. 39 x 2 million = 78 million. Abortion rate in the USA as per the CDC is one million/yr.

      And the presidential popular vote in 2008? 69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM. The population of the Immoral Majority in 2008? ~ 70 million !!!!!!

      Obama says abortions should be "safe, legal and rare" but says nothing about the basic tenet of proper human conduct i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill. And where is BO's sense of indignation that abortions are not rare and that these acts of horror demean the Golden Rule considering that he says he is a Christian. And where is his sense of indignation that women who use the Pill do not use it properly resulting in an failure rate of 8.7% as per the Gu-ttmacher Inst-itute statistics. Using these and other Gu-ttmacher Insti-tute data, this failure of women to use the Pill properly results in ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year. And the annual abortion rate in the USA is?? ~1,000,000 as per the CDC.

      And do males use co-ndoms properly? No, as said failure rate for this birth "control" method is 17.4%!! Again using Gu-ttmacher data, said failure rate results in another ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year.

      Bottom line: BO is still not aware of the basics of birth control and still remains the leader of the Immoral Majority and will remain so until he becomes a true Christian and one who respects and protects human life in all its forms and who at least emphasizes the proper use of birth control methods

      February 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • ashrakay

      “20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgment: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.” – Harris

      February 21, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 21, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      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.

      The Templeton Foundation is a religious organization hell bent on proving prayer works ... it failed and took a lot of money with it.

      February 21, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Proven .

      February 21, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I'd sincerely like to hear, read, view the evidence that backs up you continuous asertion that it is proven. by providing this .. you may actually convert someone.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  14. Mary

    And herein lies the tragedy of the "Catholic vote". For heaven's sake....if all Catholics voted based upon a properly formed conscience we would not be in the mess we find ourselves with a President making demands upon our religious liberty and 2012 hanging in the balance. So sad!

    February 21, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  15. mmi16

    Politics in the US has become Ringling Brothers Circus without any real acts – just clowns.

    February 21, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Mirosal

      No, you're wrong. There are two full acts. Act One is the hoof-pounding to count to five donkeys (Demo-craps) and Act Two are the amazing show-stopping side-stepping dancing elephants (Republi-tards. Come one come all!! Donations gladly accepted!!

      February 21, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  16. blucorsair

    Apparently, Obama felt that the catholic vote is not a myth! He half heartedly tried to capitulate to them in less than a week pertaining to contraception, abortion and Obama care. The cardinal of Mexico city is preparing a message to the hispanic voters in the US. on these issues. Obama will pay dearly for trashing the 1st amendment!!! .... the end is near for these tyrannts!

    February 21, 2012 at 2:08 am |
    • Lee

      Thanks for the laugh.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:45 am |
    • pervert bishops

      Actually Obama treated the catholic bishops as little children with his solution. Wish these juvenile delinquent catholic bishops would go away.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Primewonk

      How do you figure that the 1st amendment was trashed?

      CHURCHES were exempt. BUSINESSES should follow the same rules. Seriously – how hard is this to understand?

      February 21, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  17. Mark Paul Lucy and Jonna

    F these dirty perverted Catholics. They need to be eradicated. Sick F N pedophiles.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • WiscBadger

      You mean like Hitler tried to do to the Jews?

      February 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  18. Cortanis

    The only reason why the votes and vetting look so rocky is because almost every politician looks less and less credible. Most of the Repub. picks have glareing policies and life style choices that don't just change in the blink of an eye and leave people with the sense that they're talking from some where other than their mouth. Obama has his for sure, but his aren't nearly as glareing like those of Romney's or Newt's.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:37 am |
  19. LouAz

    Too many Christians, too few lions ! Man I miss the good old days.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:34 am |
    • eradicator

      Lions do not like your meat, well no body likes it , u stink, worthless

      February 21, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  20. nolibs

    Only myth are the libs...

    February 21, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • Winston5

      that doens't make any sense...

      February 21, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • sam stone

      you expect nolibs to make sense?

      February 21, 2012 at 11:33 am |
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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.