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. The Bible is a book of badly written fairy tales

    The Catholic vote is a myth, just like their God.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  2. chmch

    Yes, the idea leagues of Catholics will get being this fellow is a myth. There has always been this hard core conservative movement in the church, but it is weaker than ever. It relied in large part on men's groups and bishops. Very few Catholics these days trust the church hierarchy after all the betrayals of th least twenty years. Even the parish priest has lost credibility with parishioners. It is more about of religious habit on Sunday at Mass and perhaps, waiting for a new dynamic of priesthood in the church. The old guard barking these days sounds pretty hollow to the ears of most Catholics. I'd say Santorum's power games represent about 10% of American Catholics, and that might be an over-estimation.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  3. Knotme

    In sumary, if Obama gets re-elected....its will be Catholics fault...

    February 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • tracy

      I am a catholic and will not vote for him because of his pro-abortion beliefs.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      And the first good thing they've done for centuries........

      February 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  4. Knotme

    In sumary, if Obama gets reelected....its will be Catholics fault...

    February 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  5. Asturiano

    This is a Catholic who will NOT support Santorum or Romney.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Knotme

      The article didn't state all Catholics are good Catholics....

      February 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Duke5343

      Nor did it state Catholics were the smartest group in USA – if you help to re-elect this lying Greedy Capitalist/socalist you will not be happy with what you get

      February 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Sbstr

      But then again, Mitt is not even a Catholic.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • What what?

      Greedy capitalist/Socialist? Wait, did you ever take a class in economics? Socialism and capitalism are polar opposites dumbf-cuk.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  6. Linda Operle

    Catholicism is a cult and has no real basis in christanity. As with any cult the leaders tell the flock how to feel, vote, live and forbid them freedoms guaranteed to us all. It's about power. The stronger the hold over peoples lives the church has the more powerful (and rich) they become. Problem is even though they pretend to, the intelligent amongst them aren't buying it.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Me

      You have just described all of organized religion.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Patrick

      Christianity is a cult and has no real basis in Judaism. As with any cult the leaders tell the flock how to feel, vote, live and forbid them freedoms guaranteed to us all. It's about power. The stronger the hold over people’s lives the church has the more powerful (and rich) they become. Problem is even though they pretend to, the intelligent amongst them aren't buying it.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • lindaoperleisclueless

      Are you for real? You need to get out a little more. Too funny.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Knotme

      Well if the Catholic Church is a cult then the Democratic Party is the cult of all cults...

      February 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • tracy

      I am Catholic and am offended at being labeled as a cult. Study your history, Catholicism was the first and founding Christian religion. All other Christian denominations fell away from it in one form of protest (hence the name Protestant).

      February 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I would prefer you not remark on subjects of which you obviously have no knowledge,neither historically, theologically nor sociologically. I happen to be a converted intentional Catholic after many years of exhaustive and rigorous personal searching and your cavalier remarks show your ignorance and bias.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • CNNReviewer

      Thank you for your very insightful and true remarks. Many Catholics of weak conviction will take offense at the truths that you speak. Nevertheless, never stop sepaking them. The weak among us are always those that enable the large scale abuses and crimes to continue. Forgive them, for they know not what they do, or say, or believe. They are the weak, lost sheep.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  7. Bertina

    Polling shows that the majority of voters against birth control are evangelical not catholic. This makes me think Santorum is an evangelical going to the wrong church.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • tracy

      As a Catholic, I do not agree with the church on not using birth control. I do not however, support the use of the "morning after pill" or abortion. I will NOT vote Obama because of these issues. I do lean to Ron Paul however an discouraged With the choices for Republicans as none of them seem to be willing to help out the struggling middle class or to close the tax lope holes for the wealthy.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ tracy
      If your god wants a soul to be born not pill should be able to stop that. Heck he made it happen without c-men! Right…..?

      February 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  8. Bertina

    Except this seems to be the year when things get turned on their head like phrases starting with "as _ goes, so goes the nation"

    February 20, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  9. pervert bishops

    I was sodo-miz-ed at ages 8 and 9,, The catholic church lobbies to stop laws that would expose pedos. More importantly there are senators as Defransico, from Syracuse, NY, the diocese I was abused in, who help the catholic church lobby to keep pedos hidden. In fact he is friends with the bishop who sodomized me.

    I have nothing to do with this filthy organization. BTW, Catholic charities is run off our tax dollars, grant money. Please stop acting as if they are such a good organization, they do nothing unless it's for marketing or for profit.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bertina

      What happened to you is horrifying. More people need to speak out about religious hypocrisy.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • pervert bishops

      if you are catholic, please tell your elected politicians you DO NOT vote according to the catholic church, but by your moral standards which are much higher than the pope and the bishops.

      Please help stand up so that we can pass laws to expose the truth. The truth is the greatest healer. Many of those abused are mentally ill due to the abuses and others committed suicide. PLEASE deliver justice. In New York, please support the Markey Childrens, as is.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Me

      It is ironic that the Roman Catholic clergy represent the very same evil they tell us to avoid. Still, there are obviously many sheep who continue to support this evil organization, perhaps believing that "at least it did not happen in my church".

      February 20, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Knotme

      Pharma therapy not working for ya?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  10. justsayin

    What should happen is that all businesses that offer insurance ask the employee if they are Catholic, then deny insurance
    with Viagra and Contraceptive coverage.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  11. Steve Dobkowski, Dearborn, Mi.

    Obama's and his advisors's lack of understanding that their decisions regarding the Health Care "birth control" policy and Roman Catholic Organizations will cost him and Democratic candidates dearly in the 2012 Elections is obvious. To require Catholic Organizations to financially support, that is to pay for, "birth control" benefits which includes the morning after pill and sterilization, will loose Obama a large enough number Democratic Catholic votes that will make the 2012 Elections much closer than they need to be given the strange happenings in the Republican Party. As a 50+ year Democratic Party activist it is hard for me to vote for Obama in Michigan's Democratic Primary next week.. I will go to vote and I will turn in a blank ballot. The Republicans may be correct that the question is "religious freedom." I am a member of the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee as an Alternate Delegate from the 14th Congressional District and I am so disappointed with Obama's decision. Bad, bad Public Policy and terrible "Politics."

    February 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Patrick

      @Steve Dobkowski, Dearborn, Mi.
      You may be right in it could cost him. But it won’t be cause of his lack of understanding but your own and those like you. Catholic organizations are not being forced to financially support anything. I recommend you do some reading before you continue to expose yourself for a fool.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • bobg2

      Obama may be stepping on the toes of the Catholic bishops, but, as far as this rank and file Catholic who is active in his church is concerned, the bishops are not speaking for us. The lay congregation memebers who keep the church running pay little or no attention to the bishops. Their teachings are not infallible, and so may be considered only as guidelines.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      No one is requiring the Catholic Church to do anything. It now falls to the insurance companies to pay for birth control options.

      Putting that aside for a moment, are you telling us that you'll vote for the GOP candidate instead of Obama in the next election based on this one issue?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      In the end that will cost Obama nothing politcally. When most Americans get in that voting booth that is not the issue that will make them decide who they're voting for. Neither Romney nor Santorum can win. Romney is basically Obama, whether he admits it or not, and Santorum is too far right of center. Another 8 months of the economy improving, housing starts back up.....it's already over my friend.....

      February 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Attila, The Hun

      Someone who has obviously swallowed the Kool-Aid.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • NoWay

      Guess you've never used a condom.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  12. Iqbal Khan

    Watch all three parts.... and U be the judge....


    February 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Tim

      Seriously my friend....the article itself was long and boring enough that I would venture most just scanned it like myself. Even if this link wasnt blocked by my company, do you really think I would take the time to look at it??

      February 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  13. solace

    I am a registered Independent (& a "Catholic")- I vote my conscience, not the directives of a few elite males who convene in Rome.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  14. Mark

    "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%."--where the hell did you get this stat? Yeh sure and our faith means nothing.....we just make up our own rules....yeh sure.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • bff

      Apparantly, catholics do. 98% of all women that have ever had s.ex have used contraception. I'd say that all catholic women make up their own rules.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • nwi

      Everyone is accountable to inform their own moral conscious and make decisions to the best of their abilities.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Patrick

      Do as I say, not as I do has been a staple of faith since its inception.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  15. plucky

    "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."

    WOW! Without immigration, how long would the catholic church exist in the US?

    February 20, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • lindaoperleisclueless

      unfortunately , too long.


      A reformed catholic

      February 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • lathebiosas

      I don;t know, but if it's only one person you can bet he'll be the biggest whiner....

      February 20, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Will S

      ...if every Catholic couple has 2.5 children, probably never as the net growth trend is positive.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  16. Mark

    Mr. Scneck is out of touch with what makes Catholics tick but what would you expect from a CNN writer. Let's see how divided the Catholics are in the next election. There are 65 million Catholics in this country and it only takes 55 million voters to elect a President. Where he gets his information about what Catholics believe I have no idea. Most Catholics follow church rules despite what he says. He makes us out to be more liberal than is true. Nice try in spreading disinformation Scneck.You only wish we were divided. Obama is done.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • roshinobi

      Where's this supposed bloc we Catholics exist in? I argue politics just as much against fellow Catholics as against anyone else.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • solace

      Mark- Based on your statement above, I would like you to explain how YOU know that most Catholics follow church doctrine? Specifically- how do you explain that 98% of female Catholics have practiced birth control when the Church has clearly spoken out against it.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • bobg2

      This Texan Catholic is inclined to go along with the writer. I don't know about all his stats, but, judging from my interactions with other Catholics, they sound feasible. You obviously have some kind of anti- Obama thing going on, so there's not much hope in convincing you of anything, FOXMan. Obama will win in a walk, with or without a majority of Catholic votes, not because he's that great, but because the GOP knows it's doomed in 2012, and no GOP candidate of any substance has stepped forward. Obama 2012

      February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Me

      If you follow the rules created by these evil men, what wont you do?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • lindaoperleisclueless

      Mark, you are the one out of touch. As someone who received most of his formal education in catholic schooling ( K – 12, university), the one thing I can definetly say is that a good 80% of catholics only live the faith out of laziness or guilt UNTIL it is inconvient, and only find their faith again when they are desperate.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Nitpick

    I think you mean discrete (separate, distinct) not discreet (prudent, modest)

    February 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  18. DJR

    The religious right Catholic or Protestant is simply trying to be disenfranchised. It's why the primaries have not moved to the south, the BIBLE belt. We've heard from the Demigod east and moved to the mob run Florida and Nevada, but by all means lets stay out of the south, Texas and Georgia. Catholics are instilled with the knowledge of the BOOK. It goes with them like a tattoo . They actually have heard the word and many have read it. It is taught for what it is the very essence of living. Right, wrong. Many catholics will tell you it is better to be a happy singing Indian then a money mongering infidel. Are they perfect? No! But they know the law of the BOOK. They know that priests are actually trying to do right. And they know that Catholic means UNIFIED!

    February 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Alice

      it means universal. And Catholics in the south are not as big a force as the Baptists.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Patrick

      The BOOK is inconstant and contradictive, which is just as well because most of those who ‘follow’ it are cherry picking hypocrites.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • chmch

      Catholics have never been unified and there have always been deep divisions in the church. Santorum represents a small, ultra conservative wing of the church. Most of us barely recognize his brand of Catholicism.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  19. fred

    I can only speak for people I know. Teachers that retire after 25 years at 90% of their salary (average nationwide $68,780) with full adjustment for inflation plus lifetime medical are the norm. That is 25 years of work for 50-70 years of wages and benefits. Interesting you and sarcastic pick a few examples to hold out as typical. Soldiers do not get top dollar or benefits as most bug out after 8 years and they do not vote majority democrat like the rest that vote their pay check.
    Redistribution of wealth is what democrats are all about. You get yours and the heck with the children. Why is it democrats after they cut themselves a nice piece of the pie cannot stop grabbing for everyone else’s piece? In the end you drift completely into socialism which has a proven track record of being a complete failure. A bunch of power hungry liberals telling everyone else what to do. They outlawed digging holes in the beach sand in Los Angeles deeper than 11” and throwing a Frisbee or football. Volley Ball is allowed only in government approved areas of the beach. Let me see you are worried about Christians that want to show you the freedom of Christ yet applaud liberals that know better than you do when to throw a Frisbee on the beach?

    February 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  20. Tim

    The only thing that matters is my vote. All politicians should cater exactly to my wants and needs. These views should be held as fundamental, until I change my mind.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:03 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.