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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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • awaysaway

      I agree! My old dog was a catholic but my new dog is a Mormon. And interestingly the new dog performed an after-death Mormon baptism for my old dog. Now I believe my tropical fish are Evangelicals. And my kid's hermit crabs may be Methodists. I have a lemon bush that is a Hindu. But unfortunately the cat says he is an atheist – but he also says that he has a healthy dose of skepticism for all this and so not to worry about him.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Margo

      Awaysaway:

      Your post was hilarious! Thank you for giving me a good laugh. It is very hard to be Catholic and vote these days with the party of heart (Democrats) embracing cultural norms that make one's skin crawl, and the party of business (Republicans) waging war on the average, hardworking person in this country who needs some government programs.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • areukidding

      Prayer is a placebo drug for the mind. Strengthen your mind and you won't need prayer.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:03 am |
    • sortakinda

      Believers are ultimately optimists. A positive outlook on life (and Death) affects your health.

      February 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  2. sqeptiq

    Most Catholics are pretty nice people; most non-Catholics are pretty nice people; most gays are pretty nice people; most straights are pretty nice people; most women are pretty nice people; most men are pretty nice people; Most conservatives are pretty nice people; most liberals are pretty nice people.
    BUT THERE ARE A FEW MEMBERS OF MOST GROUPS WHO ARE MEAN HATERS. You can identify them easily on these posts. They may be educated but they're not smart; they are destroyers of everything nice. They are bullies who love to identify others as outsiders. They are tortured souls and deserve pity.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  3. BermudaBound

    I personally know several devout practicing Catholics who are NOT voting for Sanctimonious Santorum.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Ronald Reganzo

      President Santorum will need those names.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  4. Kayteeeeee1

    So, cultural Catholics are the important demographic for elections because they have a large number of swing voters in battleground states like Ohio. I get that. But how important is their religion in how they vote? I can see that they would probably not vote for someone whom they thought was against Catholics. What I can't see is how religion might influence their vote in a positive way, since they're not strongly religious. This is an interesting essay though and I hope CNN runs more like this, maybe about other religious groups too.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  5. Aaron

    Where do these numbers come from?
    Sorry I didn't read the entire article, I got bored half way through.
    I don't remember registering to vote under any particular religion.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  6. Sandy

    I'm Catholic, and I'm still going to church because of the Church's strong stand on social issues. These issues mirror the Democratic platform. Other Catholics are conservative and revel in the strict morality the Church espouses. These Catholics trend toward Republicans. It doesn't bother the first group that the Democrats are pro-choice, and it doesn't bother the second group that the Republicans are pro-capital punishment, although the Church is against both positions. There is no voting block of Catholics.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      The problem with the Catholic Church today is that it hasn't completly stamped out the Jesuit Liberation Theology movement from South America (preferential option for the poor comes from this). This statement is the only thing allowed to progress, but even after excommunications and censors the marxist message in Libreation Theology is still being expounded upon by left wingers, primarily illegal aliens. Jesus was not a Marxist, there is NO marxist message in the New Testament.

      It has also been adopted by other Christian churches, especially the black community.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • awaysaway

      @WDinDallas – thanks for seeing Marxists conspiracies where there are none.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      @away...you need to read about it. It started in Brazil, a priest was excommunicated (since re-instated), it is denounced by Pope John Paul II and the current Pope Benedict.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Margo

      WDinDallas:

      Jesus also said, "For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in:" Jesus may not have espoused Liberation theology but he definitely was not a right-wing purist either.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • mari

      I had to laugh and thought about what the pressing "social issues" were in my grandmother's day in the Catholic Church, and it probably was something like this: "At what age should you allow your daughter to wear lipstick"? LOL

      March 5, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  7. gregorymperkins

    Reblogged this on Generation Y: A New Perspective.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Nonimus

      So now the "Gen Y: A New Perspective's" view is a reblog of middle-aged white Catholic guy?
      Good to know.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
      • gregorymperkins

        I thought it was an interesting article as I am too busy to write anything myself with 2 theses in the works.I don't remember asking you to read my blog, please feel free to stop following.

        March 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  8. dan

    Let the class war begin.

    Just like it was the liberals that caused eath in protests in the 60's, it will be liberals that try to cause death in the 2000's. Difference is, there will be bullets waiting on them by common citizens for when they ramp up their drug enduced anger asking for more handouts.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      I agree, ammo up. They have been threathening us long enough.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • pmmarion

      I didn't know that they allowed computer access to the internet for whack jobs.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • awaysaway

      @WDinDallas – when exactly have "they" been threatening you. Only in your imagination... who cares about a peon like you exactly? And "ammo up" – but that is not threatening. LOL. You shouldn't be using a computer and drinking your Boons Farm at the same time.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  9. William

    "Nevertheless, the idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. " Of course it is.

    Separating people into blocs (Latinos, Blacks, Gays, Catholics, Women) is an old trick to help indecisive people vote for a group similar to them. Ever notice how no one ever mentions losing/winning the Protestant male vote. Why isn't that a bloc?

    February 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  10. shawn

    The egg heads on the east coast are finally waking up. The block vote they counted on in the 50's and even through the 60's no loner exists. There are so many divergent opinions no matter how loud the priest yells from the pulpit to vote one way or the other, people vote the way they want. I know this is a sore point for most Bishops who still see themselves as the mind control masters the universe, but screw them. i vote the way I want.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • El Flaco

      It's too bad that televangelists and mega-church preachers still have so much influence over their highly controllable flocks.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Pavloosh

      And then there are the air heads on the west coast!

      February 21, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  11. RAMBLE3144

    Everything is a myth if it doesn't help Obama. On CNN.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  12. cedaly1968

    @JL The Democratic party does push all of those issues, that does not mean that Catholics identify with all things in the Democratic Party- something the article calls out. We call ourselves "cafeteria Catholics" because we pick and choose. For example, I am opposed to abortion as it is fundamentally the ending of a human life. That does not mean we need a LAW to stop abortion, it means we need to have the moral character to do so. I think as humans, if we can achieve a shared moral guidance on this issue, it will be much more powerful than any law we may pass. I also have to accept that not all people believe what I believe; Catholics are not here seeking the Catholic USA, we are seeking the freedom to be ourselves.

    @Lenny Not sure that the Catholic Church has ever once said anything about redistribution of wealth, universal health care or the inability of the rich to get into heaven. I'll have to listen more closely on Sunday. The Church (at least my parish) does speak diligently about compassion toward others. And I am one of those Catholics who was VERY irritated about the Cincinnati Archdiocese sticking it's nose into the contraception debate.

    I thought this article was pretty accurate and very insightful. Too many people associate Catholics with the abuse scandal that rocked the Church. You will be hard pressed to find ANY Catholics who really thought the church handled that well.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  13. tmare

    My white Catholic friends are Republicans. My Hispanic Catholic friends are Democrats. Interesting.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      That is interesting. Catholics, in my experience, tend to be right of center on social issues, but are all over the place regarding economic issues. Hence the drift as to who they vote for.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • bspurloc

      because your white catholic friends whose ancestors converted your latino catholic friends ancestors by brute force have a severe hatred towards your latino catholic friends as does the gop.... ODD isnt it? the invaders hate the ones they oppressed. but thems are the facts... and your latino catholic friends are most likely 1000% better catholics than your white catholic friends.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  14. Reuben

    Always has been and always will be!! Catholicism has nothing to do with Christianity. They use the Bible whenever it is convenient to them!!

    February 20, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      Right, because even though they were the ones that put the bible together, and built christianity into a world religion, they are not christians.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      That was sarcasm, by the way.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Margo

      Reuben:

      Try and study the history of Christianity a little further back than the time of Luther. You may be surprised at what you find. You could try going all the way back to first century after the death of Christ.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • mari

      The ENTIRE Mass is Scripture based. The greeting alone : In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is from Matt 28:19 ... Amen... 1 Chr 16:36... The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all... 2 Cor 13:13.. What did you think the service was for God's sake? Some heathen Protestant service?

      March 5, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  15. Chris

    What is the rate of pedophilia in the Catholic Church?

    February 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      About 100 times less than in the general population, but pedophilia in the general population does not make for sensationalist headlines.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • dan

      The same as slime ball liberlas like you in the population.

      There is bad in every group. Your are an example of that in the liberal party.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Joe

      "About a 100 times less than in the general population"? As if you have clue one what the real figures are. No one does. As for the church, it hides these cases through lies and intimidation so if this is a percentage that comes from the catholic church, please imagine the rest of us laughing. If this percentage is one you pulled out of thin air, (sounds like it) then shame on you for spreading lies just like your heroes in the church.

      Again, regardless of what the overall number of pedophiles is, the catholic obscenity still nurtures, harbors and protects the ones that flock to the corrupt clergy.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Jack black

      Lower than the rate of polygamy in Christianity

      February 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • bspurloc

      yes u slime ball there is bad in all societies... but a priest whom is supposed to be closest to your lord and savior is the same thing as uncle rico having fun with your kids then standing in front of the congregation spewing hom opho bia and hatred while uncle rico smiles and shakes your hand

      February 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Jim

      The problem with the catholic church is not the RATE of pedophilia, but the fact that the organization condoned and supported it, by moving known pedophiles from place to place so they could not be prosecuted.

      That makes then entire catholic organization liable, not just the individual pedophiles.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Kimosabe

      Pedophilia occurs at much higher rates within normal familial situations, i.e. fathers and direct family members than by the Catholic Church.
      The worst offenders of children (rights) are their very parents, regardless of religious denomination.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  16. Descarado

    The indelible signature of every oppressive dictatorship throughout human history is the unconditional demand upon the private citizen to disavow its own burning conscience in favor of the state.

    Religious conviction has intersected with "Presidential mandates" just in time to save the republic. The Emperor Obama is One and Done!

    February 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Doobie Wah

      Seems like everytime a conservative doesnt like what is being written,
      they always accuse the writer of being "liberal".
      Its easier to ignore the truth, than look at yourself.

      ----------------------------------–
      dan

      The same as slime ball liberlas like you in the population.

      There is bad in every group. Your are an example of that in the liberal party.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • bspurloc

      emperor? u mean bush the invader.... so Mitt the Ripper next? or Santorum the heman women hater? how bout gingrich?

      February 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  17. Joe Fattal

    If the Catholics have any saying who goes in the White House they will sure not vote for a Mormon.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      Obviously you have no idea of how Catholics think.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • bspurloc

      course not cuz mormons have this crazy religion..... u know where women get pregnant without anyone fertilizing an egg, and this jesus dude was a zombie and a magician. etc etc etc

      February 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  18. Dance This Mess Around

    Stupid post of the day award goes to................................................

    fred

    How do people really vote? My parents vote democrat 100% because they think democrats are for the poor and republicans are for the rich. So, older people have a mind set you cannot change. This is why there is the constant drum beat in the media that republicans want to take away your social security and medicare. Forget the fact George Bush gave them drug coverage they cannot hear the difference.
    Gays vote 98% democrat because they think republicans take away their rights to do what ever they want.
    Blacks vote 90% democrat because they think republicans are whities that owned slaves and are racist
    Unions push for democrat vote to retain their power and contol over the working blue collar
    Teachers on fat lifetime reitrement plans are 80% democrat and actually think republicans want dumb kids
    Government employees are 72% democrat because they are afraid to get real jobs with no benefits.

    J.W that is the problem with our country we vote based on lies and selfserving interests. Being a Catholic is the least of a politicians worries.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  19. Rob

    MYTH! As should be all other ethnic 'votes'. There is no "Black" vote, no "Hispanic" vote, not even a "Gay" vote. Most rational people vote on the ISSUES.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      Anybody who votes for Santorum, is NOT voting on issues.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Pat

      You're assumiing that evangelicals are rational. The catholic vote (or mormon vote) is not a 'myth' - it is a conglomeration of ovine idiocy.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Mr. N.

      Ovine idiocy explains thinks like the "environmentalist" vote, the union vote, the atheist vote, etc.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  20. Smako

    They smoke, drink, fornicate and lie about all of it, and they think that repentance is just saying they are sorry, then doing it all over again next week. They kneel for communion, but they do not sustain their leadership with their obedience or their vote. If they believe they are being true to Christ by sitting in church, they can be a Cadillac by sitting in their garage too. Sure, there are good Catholics, there are good Mormons too.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Dance This Mess Around

      That was good Smako.
      The catholic church has made it very clear you can "buy" your way into heaven.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • cigarman

      You hit the nail on the head. All Religions do the same thing. I used to go to a church, until they ran The Pastor off for fornicating with the church Secretary. Right after that, they ran off the Minister of Music for fornicating with a chior member. Wow that was some swinging church. I asked a twelve year old boy who is a Catholic if he was an altar bor, He said to me, Quote. Are you kidding, Haven`t you heard what the Priests do to little boys. His Family still goes to a Catholic church, you figure that one out.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • K Ols

      Smako and Dance this Mess Around sure have a lot of misconceptions about the Catholic church and their followers. We think we can "buy" our way into heaven? What utter nonsense. According to you two, Catholics must be the only people who sin. Such broad strokes when you don't know what you're talking about. Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and prove it.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Leevitalone

      You don't know enough about Catholicism. First of all, "saying they are sorry" alone does not grant forgiveness. Ever hear of "firm purpose of amendment?" That's an important part of being forgiven. As for "kneeling for communion?" How many decades have passed since you last attended a Catholic Mass? As far as I know, smoking is not considered a sin. I never heard that drinking moderately is, either. Catholics are humans, just as are those who belong to any religion, or no religion. Some do bad things. Some do incredibly wonderful things. Your generalizations about Catholics are sad and baseless. They hurt, but they reveal your ignorance and bias.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Margo

      Smako:
      By the way, what is wrong with kneeling for communion if that happens? We happen to believe that we are receiving Jesus Himself at communion. If I could prostrate myself on the floor to receive Him, I would gladly do so.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:38 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.