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. CCD08

    The Church has always has members who do not agree nor follow the teachings of Jesus and the Church. The only thing that has changed is the ease and quickness by which someone can post or share their anti-Catholic feelings and beliefs, hence making the Church seem weak and wrong.

    March 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  2. jsutton

    I'll tell you what definitely is a myth – their religion.

    March 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • CCD08

      The faith is not a myth.

      March 16, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  3. muddiepitt99

    The biggest difference is that Catholic church is not monolithic in belief vs. most protestant denomenations. I went to Catholic schools and what I noticed is that there was a significant difference in what the laypeople believed vs. want the clergy spoke of. The clergy was adimant against abortion, however, if you spoke to many of the laypeople who went to mass, they did not agree with being against abortion. Protestant chruches, espcially evangelic, are much more monolithic than many catholic churches I have come across.

    March 15, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  4. dustin Trett

    why cant i love god and still be gay!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • muddiepitt99

      Dustin, you can just as much as anyone can love God and be a sinner. I know that I will cause a debate, but we are all sinners so one sin is no greater than another.

      March 15, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Zeke

      Dustin, to put it more accurately, you can love God and be gay because, if you believe in God, then it's obvious that God made you gay. Just like millions of other people. And if he is a loving God, then the only sin here is in people trying to make you feel bad about it and calling you a sinner for being who you are, as God made you. They do this in spite of all the pain it has caused, all the alienation, abuse, and suicides that have come about from their bigotry. It's a horrific form of arrogance and sanctimony and I pray that it doesn't hit you. Peace.

      March 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  5. Walter L Johnson

    This is an interesting way of looking at the Catholic vote, but one belief widely shared among American Catholics is that our Bishops are definitely not infallible. The Church still has considerable influence when it is addressing issues of fairness, since more than with some Christian denominations Catholics associate with being Christ-like as our goal. You look at every issue in terms of a fair solution. When the bishops go beyond that they are speaking almost entirely just for themselves, which puts them on about the same level as the local president of the neighborhood association.

    March 13, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  6. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  7. jon

    25% of the vote in several of the states Obama carried last time were Catholics, watch that disapear this time around. Obama and the media does their best to alienate the Christian vote and has really stepped in it with Jews and Catholics.

    March 10, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • GodPot

      I think you'll be surprised to find out that 98% of those Catholics don't actually want their contraceptive health care taken away even though publicly the groan and moan, but they don't have to show you how they will vote when faced with option B, Mitt "Magic Undies" Romney. My guess is Obama will retain 85-90% of those same Catholic voters who voted for him last time. I mean, at least Obama's a Christian in most of their minds, at least the ones that weren't dropped on their heads as babies and still want to see another birth certificate.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Rbudlm

      98% that is so stupid

      March 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Peter

      Take a look at Ohio in the recent primaries.

      The Catholic vote did NOT go to Santorum. It went to Romney.

      Illustrating that there is a BIG difference between people who are Catholic and how strict they follow the rules of the Church. Samnorum is a "by the book" Catholic. Obviously, many are not.

      Especially when it comes to birth control.

      March 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • dustin

      why you guys hate us gay men!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  8. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    March 9, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  9. Carm

    I like many I know wie want a President , Senators,etc that represent our values, I would not vote for a muslims because of the extreme ways they believe about women, pedophilia, multiple wifes. etc.
    Yes my vote counts , because we count.

    March 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Nematoda

      Carm writes: "I like many I know wie want a President , Senators,etc that represent our values, I would not vote for a muslims because of the extreme ways they believe about women, pedophilia, multiple wifes. etc.Yes my vote counts , because we count."

      Carm will not for a religion that sanctions pedophilia, and suggests this is true of Islam. Seriously? Has Carm been living under a rock the past few decades regarding the problem of pedophilia in the Catholic Church, a church that essentially condoned this behavior among many, many priests? And what about traditional Catholic teachings about women?

      March 12, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • lweba

      My country right now is being led by a Muslim President. He was elected by Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Pagans ,Animist etc. His Beliefs do not go to his office.
      Why does America condem Iranian rulers when what we are witnessing right now in America religion is comming into politics. Can America today blame Egypt for electing The Muslim Brotherhood to parliament (the strongest party in parliament)?

      March 15, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  10. Marissa

    Being human trumps all things...even being Catholic. 🙂

    March 9, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • GodPot

      I'm not so sure thats true, I've seen frequent cases of where a persons religion trumped their humanity. They use the phrase "The ends justify the means" as if that absolves them of wrongdoing and washes the blood from their hands, but deep down they know they just betrayed humanity, again.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  11. Dan

    i go to a Caholic college, and the only thing is that most of the candidates that came to our college, were the ones regardless of how I feel about religion I would even vote for. With that said, I believe that if we keep pushing politics over the Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and whatever sect, or faction out there, we ARE NOT going to change a thing in this country, and it will lead to gridlock. If you look countries like Iraq, Bosnia, and any other that is got a central link into religion, these countries have led to distruction. While this country, with its rights to freedom of religion being one of its hallmarks, it comes at a time when this country cannot move its sorry posterior in the Legislative Branch (regardless of party affiliation). If we have problems in this country, can't we once as a country put the Bible Down, regardless of religion, and come together at one, rather than using the ballot box, to throw the religious book at those we don't agree with politically?

    We might find we get more things done, care for our fellow man, and do unto others......like God intended us to!?!

    March 8, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Wingrider

      Your mentioning of attendance in a Catholic School makes me wonder what they are teaching. Obviously, it is not proper sentence structure, spelling, or punctuation.

      Religion is supposed to to be separate from politics in this country, but from these recent debates and speeches, we seem to be drawn back to the flame. Santorum will lead us down 'His' path of righteousnes, but the last I checked, he is not God, and may not even have a good connection to Him.

      March 9, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Jon

      The founding father's definition of the seperation of church and state seems to no longer be brought up and just the phrase alone is twisted around to fit any liberal agenda. It was defined as "the government has no place in the affairs of the church but the government cannot survive without the church". The "church" is the conglomeration of the different religions of the nation. Mostly christian and jewish. Yet, I do not see how anyone can argue that the principles that Christians beliefs are based on could be argued by anyone as being anything but a strong moral standard. These beliefs are also firmly set in the Jewish faith as well. I also find it interesting that it is unacceptable to make fun or offend any religion OTHER than Christianity, they are fair game. Hypocrisy.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • GodPot

      "The Jefferson Bible opens a window on Jefferson’s struggle to find a faith with which he could finally come to terms. It was this kind of intimate, inner search – not the outward pronouncement and establishment of religious doctrine – that the man who helped shape modern religious liberty sought to protect in America."

      March 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  12. Yes

    I am a Catholic that has in the past year re-engaged my faith. It has made my life more fulfilling.

    March 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  13. Nevermind

    So...here's one for all of you good christians...Where in the bible (chapter and verse please) does it specifically state "thou shall not have or cause an abortion"? And please don't patronise me or anyone else with the "tho shall not kill" line. We all know that Christians (and to be fair, the rest of humanity as well) take that one with a grain of salt. I can't find anything in there that directly prohibits this activity. There is lots about protecting the weak, etc, but that's in the boy scout manual too. So, why all the hoopla?

    What is your real agenda? Control? Guilt? Breeding Republican fundamentalists? What in hell is it that you people want?

    March 8, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Chris

      "Thou shall not kill" is more correctly interpreted as "Thou shall not murder". Abortion is killing a human life. I can only think that you don't want to hear that because it's the answer you're most uncomfortable with.

      March 9, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Patrick in Minnesota

      Yes but so is execution and going to war for unjustifiable reasons.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Chris

      So what's your point? Abortion is murder. While I'm against it, execution is not exactly murder. Nor is going to war against a hostile nation, although I was against the war in Iraq as well. So what's your point?

      March 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Moe Dallas

      I am what is called a re-vert. I was born and raised Catholic. When I hit my twenties I was positive everything I had been taught was totally wrong and all those smart crafty liberal folks at the fancy Ivy league schools knew far better. So I did a complete 180 and actually ended up getting a young women pregnant and having an abortion. SO anyway that's me in a nutshell of what you might want to know.

      I think the real answer is Catholics believe in dignity for ALL of humanity and where it is tuff to define where humanity begins is the most important place to be protective. The Catholic mind sees forces at work beyond government and politicians. First, abortion is OK, then euthenasia, then killing unwanted children (already being proposed in Ethics at Oxford), then killing someone because of inferior mental capacity. Anyway you should get the point by now.

      So to Catholics, the benefit is keeping civilization going by keeping it civil. As a Catholic, I don't fear the US govenment or Obama administration. The Catholic church will survive both. I fear man decending into an animal. That's why I fight.

      As to your question, I think it is a great one. Why do the Catholics pick up this mantle? Why do they fight not for themselves but for someone eles? How does it benefit them in this life? Well, if you follow the MSM it clearly doesn't. The MSM has convinced most of the US we are a bunch of flat-earth believing morons who give our money to an all male cult of pedophiles.

      March 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • muddiepitt99

      Patrick in Minnesota
      because men have scewed the word to fulfill there own beliefs and agenda. Jesus preached against violence and said to believers that we are not to take vengence in our own hands but we should leave it up to him.

      March 15, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • geekgirl64

      Why do we as "open-minded" people insist on killing off our own species? It seems very unnatural and against the natural order to sustain humans and life. Selfishness and love of own's own self will be the destruction of the world. ME ME ME.... I want to do what I want and when I want.

      This should NOT a debate about abortion or birth control of even the gay man above needing attention. This should be an about how we can sustain life, humanity and rise above selfishness, pride, greed, sloth,lust, envy and anger.

      March 16, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • geekgirl64

      Moe in Dallas... I am right there with you. Left the Church, came back and yes... the devil is in the detail.

      I couldn't have said this better: "So to Catholics, the benefit is keeping civilization going by keeping it civil. As a Catholic, I don't fear the US govenment or Obama administration. The Catholic church will survive both. I fear man decending into an animal. That's why I fight."

      I want a t-shirt that says "That is why I fight." God Bless your beautiful words in a mound of hate and anger. Peace be with you.

      March 16, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  14. Mr Everyman

    Santorum seemed to be counting on a Catholic solidarity that did not materialize in Florida, Michigan, Ohio or, Massachusetts. It does materialize for him among evangelicals. Santorum appears to me to be a Vatican I traditionalist. Most Catholics today are Vatican II more open minded people. Evangelicals often do not understand the nature of the Bible they quote nor the damage to poor people their viewpoints inflict. Most Catholics care about our security net. Santorum wants no net. That care will show up in November.

    March 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  15. Chris

    The Catholic vote is a myth because most people who identify themselves as Catholic don't practice Christianity nor do they care all that much about it except in name and tradition.

    March 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • geekgirl64

      Really? Not this Catholic. As a Catholic we are told to vote our conscience. Sometimes saving children and preserving the human race is far more important than tradition. Believe it or not, a Catholic can and should care about preserving life(Republican) and helping the poor(Democratic). If I can't in good conscience find a candidate that I can vote for then I do not vote. I pray for the choosen leader instead to do the best job he can.

      That said, I will happily attend to a tradition that is nearly 2000 years old. Listening to the same words spoken nearly 2000 years ago at the Last Supper than attend one of those "moon-bouncing," rock n rolling easy churches that have taken down the cross to appeal to selfish, entertainment starved people.

      March 16, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  16. catholic

    Religion is a business..no doubt..can be can't be whatever. Priest don't get married but protestant pastors do. The church money? we'll....guess who needs it for their children to go to school, to build a house, lifestyle blah and blah and protesting...

    March 7, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  17. Christianity

    is a cult. FACT

    March 7, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Robert

      That is a FACT, but you probably don't know what a cult is so it's a moot point.

      March 7, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Patrick in Minnesota

      If that's true, we're the world's largest cult with over a billion followers.

      March 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Apatheist

      don't drink the kool-aid

      March 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  18. uncle buck

    The catholic church ia a lukewarm church; "so because you are lukewarm, & neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth". Jesus
    I left the church to become an evangelical. They won't unite around a Christian, but choose instead to vote for a Mormon(cult). It all starts with poor leadership.

    March 7, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Robert

      You're so comfortable with your decision to leave the Church that you find it necessary to come on a blog and rip on it. Hmmm

      March 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Satanluv

      its all nonsense...grow up...jesus will vomit you out of his mouth...oooohhh, sounds rough..real words to live by...do you listen to yourself?? its pathetic to hear adults debate such nonsense...it's like listentening to 18 year olds debate who is stronger santa or the easter bunny...my silly made-up nonsense is better than yours...yeah sure...good luck w/ evangelicals...angels on your shoulders brother...ahhh get a grip

      March 12, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • geekgirl64

      If you felt lukewarm in the Catholic church then that was not the Church's fault. It is not the responsibility of the "Church" to make you feel warm. It is your personal responsibility to learn the faith, to be holy and to be a good steward. These things will make you feel "on fire." I pray that you will find your way back. I pray you find the "warmth" and "love" in the quietness of the early mornings in your prayers to God. I invite you back to the "body and blood" of Christ. The forgiveness of sins, the holiness. I pray that you will take a look at Father Barron's website and view trailers from the "Catholicism Project." I once did the same. Left the church and came back. I left because I did not know, I didn't understand. I am back because I learned and understand. Now all other religions seem "lukewarm." Take another look. Look deeper.

      "The lost Catholics suffer more than those of other religions, because they, mostly, received and despised more graces and more light. He who knew more suffers more cruelly than he who knew less. He who sinned out of malice suffers more keenly than he who sinned out of weakness. But nobody suffers more than he deserves."

      Never was it mentioned in the bible that praising our Lord should be all fun and games and make us comfortable and feel "warm". In our desire to feel comfortable we forget to that we should feel "awe and fear." God Bless you on your earthly journey.

      March 16, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  19. mmm


    March 7, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  20. Buddhist

    Stupid protestants.

    March 7, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Apatheist

      Stupid buddhists

      March 15, 2012 at 1:46 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.