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. Adam

    Why is it that the GOP clings to religion for reasons why certain laws/bills shouldn't be passed but turn away from religion on issue stated above: social and familial solidarity, the common good, preference for the poor, tradition, and welcoming of the immigrant. So they follow the wisdom of religion only when it benefits them?

    Personally, my moral and political beliefs are different and religion doesn't belong in politics, at least in the US. So, in the end are the GOP members really religious? Seems to me it's demagoguery at its finest.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      Adam, are you are marxist?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Adam

      haha no...in the first amendment, "...prohibits the federal and state governments from establishing an official religion, or from favoring or disfavoring one view of religion over another."

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  2. NewWorldCrusadeInquisitor

    Cheery-looking group.
    And they look like they just hate what their neighbor is doing. Whatever it is.
    Of course, there's always a little cupcake-swappin' at the bake sale.
    What are they singing, there?
    Jesu Akhbar?

    February 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  3. Aviate

    Every poll so far is showing that this is having no effect with Catholic voters. The vast majority of Americans see this for what it is, a desperate attempt by conservatives to distract people from the fact that the economy is getting better, despite the GOP's repeated efforts to sink the recovery in order to win in 2012. Seriously, whatever ground Obama might lose with some Catholic voters, he'll more than make up with women voters who'll be rightly terrified about what might happen if Santorum or Romney take the White House.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • truthhurts

      SO SO WRONG!!!! Amazing.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Rick

      So true.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Hugo

      What, pray tell, do you mean by "this" in the first sentence?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Rick

      Aviate, your comment is spot on.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • The Phist

      The economy is getting better? Really? Increased deficit = better economy? Have you paid any attention to the housing market at all? The numbers are worse than what everyone thought. And no, I'm not a fearmonger republican. I prefer facts to retarded opinions like yours which are clearly based on biased opinion. You're a moron.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Skyler

      Nailed it, Aviate. And Phist, the economy is improving, despite what you heard on what can only be Fox. Also economy ≠ deficit.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  4. Nathan

    You people enjoy ripping on Catholics based on what the media has given you....If I were to say something about the blacks being lazy and on welfare, I would be making that statement based on the perception you would get from the media.....Of course, that would make me a racist. All of you are just offering opinions. I forgot, the pendulum doesn't swing both ways. Point is, educate yourselves before you type in your opinion.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Jason

      I was born and raised Catholic and Catholocism is a backwards, regressive, worldview. 🙂

      February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Jason

      Catholicism. Sigh.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  5. liz

    You have socially conservative Catholics who largely live in red states and vote with their social groups on issues such as gays, abortion, birth control and the uber capitalist, neo-con Jesus forgetting about everything else. Then there are the socially liberal Catholics who for the most part live in blue states and are concerned with following the Jesus of the New Testament, helping the least among us, social justice, basic human rights, abolishing the death penalty etc

    February 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  6. Changua

    Catholic to the core but a bishop will not tell me when to have and sustain a baby. Voting democrat. It is the closest to Jesus teachings of caring for the poor. Period.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • liz


      February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Hugo

      Did you really mean what you said? You have a problem with a Bishop, or anyone else, telling you to take care of your baby? "Baby" includes people who are born and are otherwise called infants.

      Have you read 1 Timothy 5:8? How can you be Catholic to the core and not accept an instruction as clear at 1 Timothy 5:8?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Nathan

      So what you're saying is that you're inability to accept responsibilty for you actions is being blamed on a Bishop?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Changua

      @Hugo: Are you familiar with the Second Vatican Council? Repeating verses from the Bible verbatim really doesn't work for me. Context and reality does.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • HWB

      Voting Democrat, now that is where you are messed up.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  7. stanton


    February 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  8. carl

    Let's not forget that a large part of the Catholic population has immigrant roots, many just a generation or two away, and that means blue collar. Kennedy was lucky, a democrat and a Catholic. I am a Catholic and wouldn't vote for Gingrich or Santorum no matter what.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • 1225

      You are so right on. I agree with everything you just said. Couldn't have said it better.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  9. key8

    TSB8C: I probably would have left the church long ago for those reasons, but a Jesuit priest told a group of college students that it was ok to disagree with some things and that it's easier to change an organization from within than outside. That made sense to me. I think birth control is fine. I think priests should be allowed to marry. I think women should be allowed to be priests. I've heard priests also say they think the two latter things should be allowed.

    Good article. That's what I'm seeing from within.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • KatyaKatya

      Nice! I'm with you and there is more people like us! The original Christian church never had a problem with contraception (abortion is still murder, but contraception is not abortion). Priests in the original Christian Church were married and had children. Celibate priesthood was introduced in the Roman Archdiocese under the influence of certain pagan religions, which did use to have celibate priests. It is common knowledge.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  10. Nick

    gerald, just because something is around for 2000 years does not mean it is wiser. Are you talking about the same church that put Galileo to death because he said earth is not flat and the same church who turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Nazis in Italy?

    February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Eric

      Every church makes mistakes, just like you do, or do you walk on water too, like Jesus? I'm sure Nick that every decision you have made in life is correct, NOT!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Nathan

      this is the same church that operates many non-profit hospitals that don't turn anyone away. and the same church that has soup kitchens all over the country...Yeah, you're right....bad Catholics.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Chris

      Eric, if the church follows the word of god, there should not be mistakes of that extent. Unless you are saying god is giving wrong instrustions to his followers once in a while, just for the fun of it. And, if this is the case, how do you know what he said seriously or jokingly?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • RobertC

      That is not true. Galileo died of natural causes at 77. The church saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Many priests and other religious died trying to save others. Look up Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stern. If you don't like the church, that is your right, but don't lie about them.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  11. CaringFool

    All candidates must stay out of my bedroom, doctor's office, clinic, church and car if they even want me to consider their other qualifications. Otherwise, you're done.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Hugo

      Staying out of the doctor's office means that the office staff can tell anyone (such as a potential employer) anything true about you. Is that really what you want? (If not, perhaps you should rephrase. If so, please confirm.)

      February 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Chris

      Hugo, I think you are not understanding well. No candidate should dictate how a doctor treats his/her patient. The doctor should do what is best for the patient, not what some lawyer decided was right based on religious beliefs and no medical knowledge.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  12. Lu

    I believe the sentence should read "three discrete (meaining separate), not "discreet"

    February 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • S. Schneck

      Thanks, Lu. You're right.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  13. jasie

    If Obama would force Catholics to go against their beliefs, he would have no problem taking away anyone else's rights..

    February 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Hugo

      How is Obama forcing Catholics to go against their beliefs?

      The issue, as I understand it, is if Catholic organizations should be required to provide money for services they think are a sin. I'm lost on the theology behind that. Where in the Bible does it tell us to get our nose into other people's "tents?" (In fact, I don't remember exactly where, but I think we aren't supposed to. I used the word "tent" on purpose.)

      February 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  14. superplus

    I'm voting for the presidential candidate that is LEAST likely to shove religion down everyone's throat. Look at all the countries in the world that are messed up because they have too much religion in their governments.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • scoobypoo

      yep, anyone from the GOP is just a lying sack of santorum

      February 20, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  15. J'rod from Cali

    Bloggers, please understand that the people on this and other sites are NOT real people (for the most part). They are being paid to create/make this a fake attack about religious freedom issues where there are none. Re-read the Presidents intent and you will see that this is another Republican bait n switch scheme. Please repost this message each time you see an article with this topic. They are trying to blurr the real message!

    February 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Nick

      like you??

      February 20, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • J'rod from Cali

      Your mother! ......real enough for you Nick?

      February 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm |

    I didnt realize we are electing a pope in white house ?

    February 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • superplus

      ALLAMERICAN – Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! That was hilarious!

      February 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  17. Jimmy

    @ TSB8C I'm a boy scout...only, I don't wear the uniform, or attend meetings, or go to any of the activities, or earn badges, or help old ladies across the street....that's the old-style boy scouts. The new-style is to send in $100 for a boy scout certificate and stay home playing video games....

    February 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  18. Are You Kidding?

    look the catholic voting block is being used. By a republican candidate that is the biggest friend of special interest groups and lobbyist the belt way has ever seen. His views towards women's rights are just plane scarey. So I would do my home work if you want to vote for anyone that plays around with our freedom of religion.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Hugo

      I think you are trying to make a point but I don't get it. Who is trying to mess with freedom of religion?

      February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  19. Jason McCann

    Catholicism is a backwards, regressive worldview. What do you expect?

    February 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • ajk68

      Catholicism brought us the scientific revolution. One of the central ideas in Catholic belief is that the world is intelligible – that it is something that acts in predictable ways. There is a strong emphasis on the use of reason. These beliefs gave us the underpinning of the scientific method and scientific revolution.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • PK

      And the Catholic Cardinals and Bishops will order all of their followers to vote for other than Obama or they will be committing a sin just like the last Bush election.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Jason McCann

      "Catholicism brought us the scientific revolution."

      That is the downright most hysterical thing I have read in 2012. Thank you.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Aviate

      Catholicism brought us the scientific revolution.
      Galileo might beg to differ...

      February 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  20. Mark

    The Catholic Church is abusive and controlling. Following my experiences in a Catholic school in the 1960's, I wouldn't give 2 cents for any of you Catholic sheep. You have loud mouths! I have no respect for any of you. Most of you weaklings won't even stand against the abuse of your own children.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Jason McCann

      So true!

      February 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Stan

      Opinions are like a*sholes

      February 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Cesar Andrade

      Religion has no place around politics. AT ALL. Because if you have people like Santorum moving into office and imposing judeo christian sharia law...well then you basically throw out all other religions and tell them they are false.

      Remember our founding fathers, the Treaty of Tripoli...This is no Christian/Catholic nation.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Wally624

      It looks to me like you're the one with the issues

      February 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Steve

      Mark, Now that you got all that out you can go change your diaper.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • TruthSociety

      Talk about Loud Mouths. It sounds like yours is wide open with a hook in it.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:04 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.