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. Tom

    the Catholic vote is a myth. On the other hand the Evangelical vote is not a myth. They do exactly what that preacher tells them to do. They are incapable of thinking for themselves. Do I hear an alleluia?

    March 7, 2012 at 6:18 am |
  2. WillieLove

    Only the Magisterium of the Church Can Interpret the Bible
    "The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the magisterium of the Church, that is, the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him." #100, p.35

    March 7, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  3. WillieLove

    The Holy Ghost Interprets the Bible for Christians

    (a) Christians don't need ANY middle man to teach them to understand God's word.

    These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.
    –1 John 2:26-27
    We find out in (b) below that it is the Holy Ghost that teacheth us what we need to know from God's word.

    (b) Nowhere in the Bible does it say God has entrusted His Scriptures to the Roman Catholic pope or his bishops, nor the interpreting of Scriptures to the pope and his bishops. God Himself interprets Scriptures for His Children.

    "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, HE SHALL TEACH YOU ALL THINGS, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you."
    –John 14:26
    "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, HE WILL GUIDE YOU INTO ALL TRUTH.."

    –John 16:13
    (c) We disciples are commanded in God's word to STUDY the Bible. It does not say we are to leave it up to others:

    "STUDY to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, RIGHTLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH."
    –2 Tim. 2:15
    (d) God did not leave the Scriptures for private interpretation to any leaders of any organization.

    "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any PRIVATE INTERPRETATION."
    –2 Peter 1:20
    (e) If it were impossible for us to understand the Scriptures, Jesus would have never rebuked the Sadducees for making errors:

    "And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?"
    –Mark 12:24
    (f) God will give you more understanding than all your teachers, including the pope and his bishops because:

    "O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation."
    –Ps. 119:97-99

    March 7, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • Tom

      Ok, ok. Now what does all that mean relative to fairness in taxation, affordable health care for all of our citizens, limiting welfare for the wealthy and providing welfare for those truly in need ?

      March 7, 2012 at 6:24 am |
  4. 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 (God's words) 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...

    March 7, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  5. WillieLove

    CATHOLIC TRADITION – Purgatory, nuns, popes.

    WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS – None of these is mentioned in the Bible. It is a sin to add to the Bible.

    30:6 Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.
    The pope is a man who takes upon himself honor which belongs to no human being. Even the very name by which he allows himself to be called (Holy Father) is highly presumptuous and blasphemous (see above).

    One does not need the pope to determine what God's will is. The Bible says that God has given the Holy Ghost to each believer and that He (the Holy Ghost) guides and leads us into all truth. All a believer needs is the Bible and the Holy Ghost to know the will of the Lord. Popery has been treacherous, but worse, each pope has been the blind leading the blind. Jesus said that both will fall into the ditch. Catholics, come out of this system that cannot save and know Jesus for youself, intimate and up-close.

    NOTE: Purgatory is supposedly a place where a person is purified of sins–even popes supposedly go there. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the one that purifies us of our sins. Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.... When a person dies their eternal home is sealed–heaven or hell–no in between. Hebrews 9:27 ...it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.

    March 7, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  6. WillieLove

    CATHOLIC TRADITION – Mary is the mother of God.

    WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS – Mary is the mother of the earthly Jesus, not God. Jesus pre- existed from everlasting as God (see John 1:1). When He came to redeem mankind, He laid aside His glory and was made like unto sinful man so that He could take our punishment (Hebrew 2:9). God has no mother. He has lived from everlasting which means He had no beginning.

    43:10 Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. [If Mary gave birth to God, she'd be God.]
    93:2 Thy throne is established of old: thou art from everlasting.

    5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler [Jesus] in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

    2:6 Who [Jesus], being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
    2:7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

    March 7, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  7. Marianne

    I can tell you as a Catholic that no catholic will vote for someone just because they are catholic. If anything, it turns us off. Santorum is what we call a pre-vatican II fanatic. No thank you. I'll take anyone over him anyday.

    March 6, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  8. Alfalfuh


    March 6, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  9. Alfalfa

    U r awl geh stup guing to da church it hurtes my af ace face* hammer's are liek tool's because so is religun way fur cool polar bearz ak-47 cod backspin 360 flip church hurl super face noob religun acces africa I am from timbucktu l ae 212 das wher i leave! grantued for access polar bear afrikuh 12 lol aske 23 for my corn religun.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  10. Alfalfa


    March 6, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    March 6, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Alfalfa

      Everyone kill it before it lays eggs.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  12. Vicki

    Dear God,
    Please bring back separation of church and state.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  13. josh rogen

    the president loses the catholic vote so now it doesn't exist, just like anyone who disagrees with his decrees are marginalized by his supporters.

    March 5, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Alfalfa

      Newport Grammar school I see.

      March 6, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  14. gary

    Catholics are SO whacky and sick. Centuries of corruption, torture, inquisition, bureaucracy = sick cult.

    March 5, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • closet atheist

      yeah... unfortunately, all organized religions are essentially cults....

      March 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • WillieLove

      cult CATHOLIC TRADITION – Mary is the queen of heaven.

      WHAT THE BIBLE (God's Words) SAYS – Worshipping the queen of heaven (which is not the Mary of the Bible) is worshipping another god and it provokes the Lord to anger.

      7:17 Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?
      7:18 The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.
      7:19 Do they provoke me to anger? saith the LORD: do they not provoke themselves to the confusion of their own faces?

      March 7, 2012 at 2:11 am |
  15. wayne

    "Paul, my boy. Take a little reality with your ignorance, and stock up on those cheetos." Wider acceptance is growing among Protestants for pot legalization. Even Pat Robertson says it should be legal, not only because of it's medicinal value. THC has been proven in laboratory studies (no clinical trials) to kill cancer but we can't afford to build any more jails.

    However, be careful what you wish for. You seem to be naive of the fact that the U.S. Government screws up everything it touches.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  16. wayne

    Gee, maybe we'll get some black Republicans someday.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:27 am |
  17. Angela B.

    Cultural Catholic. Glad to finally have a term that describes me. Thrilled with this article which describes the complexity of Catholic voters and how they cannot all be lumped into one group.

    March 5, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  18. Jeff Lucas

    Scripture, tradition, and reason imply that all things are good, and that substance (such as foods and drinks) only becomes toxic in it's misuse, that is, in the uses that are not in order with the purposes God created them [4]. The Scripture's warnings against these philosophies are traditionally viewed as warnings about the Gnostics of the second century. It was a blending of Jewish, Greek, or Eastern philosophy with Christianity. These Gnostic errors are widespread, they appear century after century, and shows itself in many forms of religion, not merely in distorted forms of Christianity. In life application today, we can see that same Gnostic germ resurface in our society in the influence of modernism and postmodernism

    March 4, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • The Apestle Paul

      So Pot is bad because it is not widely accepted by the Protestant community? Or because it's a chemical? Better stop eating your cheetos. "Timothy, my boy, take a little wine for your stomach."

      March 4, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  19. Jeff Lucas

    There's only one Protestant in the Presidential race, RON PAUL. Look real close at his policy positions. That's what a true Evangelical looks like in the political arena. Protestants remember the true nature of government.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Greta Garbo

      If that's what a "true evangelical" looks like, then why he hidin' his light under a basket, Jeff? C'mon man, this guy don't say nuthin about his religion. How sad that you can call someone an Evangelical Christian who doesnt call himself one.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  20. Jeff Lucas

    Anyone who voted for Obamacare is NOT a Christian. It is Tyranny, a classic Western Tyranny.

    March 4, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Stevie Wonder

      Sic semper tyrannus, and down with Santorum.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Benny Hina

      Ironic that no Republicans voted for Obamacare. I like how you conflate Christianity with the GOP. Brilliant, professor.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • wayne

      Not for Obamacare, but many so-called Christians voted for Obama since McCain was a joke. This time around I doubt it. They'd vote for Spong-Bob if he was the GOP nominee.

      And hey Stevie Wonder, I don't care for Santorum either, but you quote John Wilkes Boothe?

      March 5, 2012 at 4:13 am |
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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.