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. Jeff Lucas

    I can't wait for Obamacareto get implemented! Thatway everybody can pay for the health problems I get from eating bigmacs, smoking, and driving recklessly. As an American with a "right" to healthcare, I can do whatever i want and the taxpayers have to subsidize my unhealthy behaviors.

    Obamacare will control us in ways unimaginable in a free soceity.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • George Walfren

      That is thoughtful of you Mr. Lucas. I can't wait either! Although I pretty positive that if "Obamacare" was pushed forward by George W. Bush or Tricky Dick Santorum, you'd be singing a different tune! Praise Santorumcare!! hahaha.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Stevie Wonder

      "Obamacare will control us in ways unimaginable in a free soceity."

      Oh yeah, I forgot, and Rick Santorum's Bible-based platform would not control us at all.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  2. Jeff Lucas

    There is a certain contrasting quality between judgments within the world view of the proponents of the war on cannabis and Christian theology.
    The "everything is toxic" philosophy embraced by the ONDCP toxicologists and controlling offices such as the FDA and DEA is the exact opposite of sound Christian theology [1,2], and the corollary truths built upon it are not Biblically founded, and can be proven to be Biblically incorrect. -And if it's not Theologically true, if it's not true in the Bible, than it isn't true at all [3].

    March 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • Jeff Lucas

      No Bible believing Christian can accept any "toxicology" studies or reports from the ONDCP in good conscience, when they consider the axioms that were used to build their studies. Do Christians adhere to "scientific" theories about big bang and evolution? No, and we can also reject the observations of the ONDCP about cannabis on similar grounds when all things are considered in a clear systematic theology. One must "Test The Evidences" that come from outside Scripture.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Art Buchenwald

      hyuk hyuk hyuk. You're a funny guy, huh? I think you meant to post that on your church's message board, not CNN's. "we" should this and "we" should that. You've just alienated 90% of your readers.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • George Walfren

      Please cite one shred of "Biblical evidences" in support of whatever argument you were trying to state, and then give "us" one good reason why "we" as a CNN reader community should accept the validity of this so-called "Biblical evidences."

      March 4, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  3. Steve the Goat

    The book Catholics follow is a myth, so why wouldn't their vote be a myth as well?

    March 4, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  4. Cameron

    I have a VERY slight sympathetic touch for Catholics. If for nothing else then the fact I've lived in areas where Protestant groups treat Catholics like crap. No sympathy for the RCC though. That organization is disgusting and will hopefully one day disolve.

    March 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  5. JEN


    March 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  6. gerc

    If you think there is no Catholic vote, just wait when the Pope starts speaking out. Then we'll see who would dare vote against the wishes of the one who claims to be god on earth.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • joe

      You need to know what you are talking about before you post something. The Pope is Gods repesentative on earth. He does not nor never claimed to be God. Not knwing what you are talking about makes you look foolish

      March 4, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  7. mike

    interesting article

    March 1, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  8. Peikoviany

    Fox News seems more Catholic than conservative, in that Fox News sometimes seems surprisingly altrustic on charitable causes while hitting hard on social issues. But Tertullian said it best, there is blind faith required. Not sure where Ben Franklin or Tom Jefferson would find a place in this modern era among conservatives or liberals.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  9. Annaliesa

    I've met a lot of Catholics, and the commonality seems to be a belief in a higher power. Beyond that, it's a mix. I've noticed this about most denominations. Which is a good thing.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  10. David Kimball

    There are two Catholics bodies in our society – the Catholic Hierarchy, and the Catholic congregants. And they are not the same. Look at contraception for an example of the differences.

    The author says that originally Catholics (people) used to be Democratic until they had merged in with society. There's another reason why there is a difference between then and now – and that has soemthing to do with the Catholics. They used to be much more interested in social justice than they are now. Dorothy Day and many, many others were great Catholics working for social justice. Now we have none. Catholics have become mainstreamed and are much more into individualism where they care more about themselves than the plight of others. They are like the Republicans who feel that everyone should take care of themsleves (as they have and hold themselves up as examples.)

    February 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  11. rachel

    I'm Catholic and liberal. Heck, the majority of parishioners in my diocese are democrats and don't agree w/ the church's stance on priest celibacy, women ordination, women's rights or gay rights.

    As the article stated, your geographical location is a better indicator.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • questioner

      If you find so many discrepancies in church teachings and your beliefs, why not go to another church that has similar beliefs to your own? It is not a religious buffet, where you get to pick and choose the pieces you like and ignore the others. Surely there is a faith more inline with your views.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • paul

      Are you Catholic in name only? Just a sincere question.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Kurt

      All people of faith pick and choose, questioner. It is the nature of texts that were written ions ago, canonized for political reasons, translated countless times by people wanting to emphasize some things while deemphasizing others... it's the nature of our holy books. It all ends up being a personal thing, based on faith or lack thereof. No one, not even the holiest of holy leaders of the world religions, can claim to abide by all of the tenets of their scriptures. If they do, they are *lying* to you and you should find someone else to listen to.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  12. Common Sense

    Shoot, the entire Catholic religion is based on a myth.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Santorum for Prez

      Catholics in the Michigan primary went for Romney. Protestants went for Santorum. Looks like Schneck's "intentional Catholics" are still more interested in assimilation than Catholicism.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Janet

      Choke on your own protein shake.

      March 2, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • periwinkle


      March 4, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Stevie Wonder

      Janet: shake on your own protein choke.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  13. ldean5o

    43% of women in Michigan voted for Romeny. If any woman knew that Mormons believe it is a sin against God for a woman (just woman, not men) to be single/unmarried they would not vote for Romney. Additionally, Mormons believe an unmarried woman is such an agregious sin that she will not enter their Celestial Heaven. (They believe in 3 levels of heaven with Celestial being the highest). The ONLY way a woman can enter heaven in the Mormon faith is through her husband, who is required to be a member in good standing with the church – belief in Christ is not a requirement, while obedience to the church and its leaders is.

    February 29, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • c

      And what do these Morman laws have to do with the President and his policy on oil, jobs and immigration? I am pretty certain if Romney wins he wont force single women to marry

      February 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • lily

      Ummm... that's false... That is NOT what Mormons believe.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • periwinkle


      YES IT IS! You can sugar coat it to taste better for your palette, but that IS what they believe. Wake up!

      March 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • periwinkle

      ANYone with the mentality to believe fantasy, mythical, ridiculous, illogical garbage is NOT fit to be president. Their crazy beliefs WILL dictate their governing, decision-making, and law making of the land.

      March 4, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  14. Peter

    This is a silly article. Anyone who has experienced Catholics in different parts of the country understand that to clump them all up in a simple generalization is as foolish as foolish can be. Like any good family, however, they will bicker among themselves and disagree to close to civil war over the Jesuits, Pope and so on. BUT, any outsider who attempts to take advantage of that perceived schism is best served to not join in as both side will close quickly against him. Just like a good family- I can say what I wish about my brother os sister but don;t you dare think you can!

    February 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  15. SegoLily

    It is refreshing to know that with the gradual demise of the obnoxious Boomers that the cultural catholics will be a thing of the past for the most part. In the meanwhile, some Latinos and Latinas will be seduced by the Mormons and Evangelicals.

    What will be left will be Faithful, intentional Cathoics, a mere remnant, who will transform our fetid, rotting culture.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Bill, Bloomington Il

      Sorry Sego, the rotting as you put it is from the X generation and the anything goes mentality. If you look at the footage of the elderly gentleman yesterday who was carjacked and had to crawl into a store for help, you will see several xers (not Boomers) who ignored this mans plea for help. They just walked around him as the all about me mentality continues.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Brandon

      Oh please, and if that would of happened 50 years ago, if the victim wasn't white the rest of town would have probably jumped in.

      Crime is at an all time low, shove it with your generation X crap.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • Kurt

      Because generalizing about Boomers, Xers or Millennials, for that matter, is such a useful thing. Oh, please. You can't lump an entire generation together anymore than you lump all Catholics together and it's foolish to try.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  16. Santorum for Prez

    Schneck is no unbiased analyst. He's on the board of the organization: Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Here's a piece he wrote praising Obama's decision on contraception.


    February 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  17. bp

    If Catholics voted as a bloc in lockstep with Church policy, there would be far more concern about the Catholic supermajority on the US Supreme Court (6 of 9). Given the Church's positions on birth control, abortion, stem cell research, etc., it's almost surprising there isn't more concern about the Supreme Court being dominated by Catholics.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  18. John F. Hudak

    It just goes to show , once you get yours, then greed prevades. Caring about fairness and others are for the striving not the barely thriving. Republicans the party for the well off or the ones who doesn't know any better.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  19. PrimeNumber

    A lot of todays "catholics" are Baby Boomers. This is the generation that, in the '60s and "70s rose up in the millions, threw off religious and civil authority, and proclaimed "we can think for yourselves". Then, they stupified their thinking capacity with drugs, started a secksual revolution with it's "free love (=secks), and became minimalists ("what's in it for me?"). Finally, like sheep, they justified themselves: "but everyone's doing it." When the media refers to some of these people as "the catholic vote", the media doesn't know what it's talking about. Consequently, the media consumers remain in ignorance.

    February 27, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  20. /sigh

    show me a christian and I will show you the true evil in this world.

    February 27, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • catholic engineer

      Are you sure? Christianity is like a mirror held up in front of your face. You might think the mirror is evil when it might be your own reflection.

      February 27, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • sortakinda

      You might better have signed your tag "Beelzebub."

      February 27, 2012 at 1:41 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.