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. Kimosabe

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

    February 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • toadears

      A pedo is a pedo , parent or not. Usually the pedo is a relative or friend or neighbor, but not necessarily a parent.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Kimosabe

      toadears...The main trangressors of children's rights ARE their parents. Fact. period.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  2. Giancarlo Taliente

    and Agnosticism

    February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |


    February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Wally624

      I think your name says it all.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Giancarlo Taliente

      Way to go Censors. How did this clown's post get through???????

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

      Wally, hahahahhaaa

      February 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm |



      February 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Mike

      RIGHT ON!!!!!!!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Vumba

      I'm usually good at this, let's see, you are a loner, possibly abused in your life by your father; Mother, if you have one, dosen't like you, a bully in school, feels tough on the computer but in reality your a small person in the world. Hey M.S. how correct am I? Be honest...

      February 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  4. Madison County NY Resident

    I am sure you mean there are three DISCRETE Catholic votes. They may be "discreet" as well, but the context suggests you meant the former.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Jeff

      I think you meant to say DISTINCT? Otherwise you just repeated the same mistake as the article?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Madison County NY Resident

      No, "discrete" is the word. The adjective discreet means prudently self-restrained or tactful. Discrete means distinct or separate.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  5. stanton


    February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • toadears

      And for that they are grateful, however, we do wish you teach your Mother to use the toilet inside also. There have been complaints.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Vumba

      Thank you for leaving the Church. I will pray for you tonight before I go to bed. "Requiescat in pace"

      February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • KristinaKaye

      Wow ... yet another great comment ... the uneducated speak loudly here!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Fairplay99

      Go pound sand

      February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Hunchback

      I feel stupid for even responding to you, but I'm going to anyway. I assume you'll want someone to urinate on you to cool the fire in the afterlife. Go back to Church, deny your own selfishness, take up your cross, repent and follow Christ while there is still time.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  6. Pete J

    Good catholics will read and reflect on this analysis, I personally agree with it. I remember when the term Cafeteria Catholic came along,denoting catholics who chose what belief that they counted as their own. Now we have cafeteria bishops who pick and highlight what teachings are more important and which to ignore. Contraception is highlighted, church teachings on the rights of immigrants and workers(unions) are now ignored.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  7. TopView20

    Rick Santorum is Stone Fricken Crazy! Run, hide, get of his way. Rick Santorum did not take his medication today! He's Co-co for Cocoa Puffs!

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

      learn to spell coo coo....(what are they teaching these kids????????)

      February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  8. Wade

    Most Catholics are what we call selective Catholics. They are Catholic when it serves their purpose if not they are not. So I would not think thier voting as a block is much of an issue since their being catholic is not much importance to them.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Pete J

      I disagree Wade. This article is very accurate.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  9. JG

    I particularly like the part about "1/3 of those raised Catholic, have left the church". The more faded that organized religion is in our society, the better off we'll be. Can't wait.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  10. aaron

    Catholic vote a myth? No. Catholicism a myth? Well, all religion is a myth...

    February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Wade

      Yea they use to say the world was flat too. i guess people have not changed much. We have no Idea really if there is or is not a GOD so logic dictates it would be prudent to err on the side of caution.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • gerald

      I'll bet you anything that in those days the Atheists thought the world was flat also.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  11. TIE

    Anti-Catholicism: the last acceptable bigotry! Sad to see it rear its ugly head here, but not unexpected.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • toadears

      Au contrair, mon ami. Bigotry is completely politically correct in America if you are any believing Christian of any faith. Also it is acceptable to ridicule fat people. If you get a fat Christian.......full steam ahead, let the ammunition fly!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  12. Debbie

    Left the church a long time ago. It's hard but but necessary. A person must decide are they going to follow what they have been taught as a child or what they have been touched by through Christ. The catholic church uses means to maintain control through the same means used by Satan. Sitting in a pew on Sunday listening to deception is not following Christ, it is following the Deceiver. It's very hard to leave what you have always known but if you are serious about calling yourself a Christian then you must stop following the Deceiver and follow Christ. While I believe in my heart the people overall in the catholic church people are good, the church itself is evil.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • TopView20

      Great comment. Debbie, I would stand with you before God himself and support these comments.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • gerald

      Debbie, you are evil. The bible says the heart is deceptively wicked. God says Trust not in your own understanding, proverbs 3:5 but you say "I trust in my own understanding". Heb 13:17 says "obey and submit to your leaders" but you say I have none. It is not the Church that is evil. It is those who will not submit to what Christ laid down as the plan of salvation and will say I will make God in my image and likeness which is what you have done.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • toadears

      There are a lot of bad shepherds out there. That is very true. There is also a lot of false teaching out there. Also true. But we were told to not neglect the fellowship with the saints. There is safety in numbers, Debbie. Try a non-denominational congregation just to have some Christian friends or a small congregation that meets in someone's home.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  13. toadears

    I just come here to see all the atheists. hhahaahaaa Always following Christians around like little nippy lap dogs.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  14. CC

    This is funny, hands down the dumbest myth propagated through out history. Christians are morons.

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

      rrrruuuuufff! rrrrruuuuufffff! LOL here's one now

      February 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  15. Reggie from LA

    Not to be offensive, Catholics, sincerely, but I haven't seen major skirmishes for dismissing old guard leadership after a ton of instances of pedophilia. It seems that the "religion" itself has some serious partisan infiltrators with megaphones...talking. That ain't God!! By the way, I suspect that God must be impotent (vice omnipotent). The reason I say that is because the clergy and even worse, the parishioners, do God's judgement for him. Many are able to discern who's going to He11, when life begins, who you should vote for (Ooops. Off subject there). If you are firm believers in God, why not let him handle this contraception stuff his way? NO, HE DOESN'T NEED TO WORK THRU YOU. Why, because many of you intercessors cannot leave Him to do His work. You are sad and pathetic creatures who want to be heard (kinda like me right now, I suppose) and feel powerful. Let the Lord do his work!! You lesser Gods are just political and need to cease. u 2 Pope.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  16. Joe

    Is the catholic vote a myth? Maybe. Is christianity a hate-filled and violence inducing myth? Definitely.

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

      Look at all the rediculous uneducated comments posted here! WOW!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  17. Revelations

    Santorum Catholics are the new Puritans. And there is nothing Christian about them or him.

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

      A very ludricrous comment. Didn't take much brain power to say that now did it!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  18. joan

    christians are not supposed to judge. Bleased are the poor in spirit, not the Haughty.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  19. heythere

    I knew this was going to stir up the bigots

    February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • The Phist

      Absolutely. That's exactly what the majority of believers are.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  20. The Phist

    Religion is all myth. Nothing more.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Giancarlo Taliente

      So it Atheism.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • The Phist

      That makes a lot of sense, numbnuts.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:10 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.

February 2012