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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. jon

    Fact, Obama got 25% of his votes from 7 Democrat states in 2008 from Catholics. Another fact, that won't happen again in 2012

    February 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Susan - Tired American Woman

      It's Democratic, not Democrat states. Don't be a putz.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Obama has lost the Catholic vote. The bishops actually backed him, as did most Catholics when they thought he would actually protect the religious conscious of members of society. They should have known better and now they have egg on their face. He has lost the vote, but he's lost it for a lot of different reasons, not just this. The debt is fiscally very irresponsible. That's why I think he loses in November.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  2. martog

    Anyone who needs the promise of heaven and the threat of hell to be a good person IS NOT a good person

    February 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mark

      It is not so much about reward and punishment, although that is a reality that all men and women will eventually have to face. It is more about falling in love with your creator, who first loved you enough to give you life and a free will, and through that love becoming fully human, and learning to love those around you as best as you can. Without a life of grace, you can only be a shadow of the person God intended you to be.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Susan - Tired American Woman

      Well put!

      February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Hunchback

      Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Skyler

      How about being good for goodness sake?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  3. mistamista

    The catholic vote, the entire foundation of religion at large, fair & balanced reporting and Gremlins....these are all myths...except for the Gremlins.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  4. MUDDBUTT SPRAY

    IF YOU BELIEVE IN GOD YOU DON'T DESERVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE

    February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Mike

    Enough of this religion and candidates. Do what is best for the citizens of America without pushing your private beliefs on everyone. It is about the USA......NOT the church, the temple, the mosque, etc. etc. Religious beliefs belong in the home. Outside is for everybody. Live your life. Not mine.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  6. Mark

    I beg to differ ... I can yell at my sister ... but you can't. I can disagree with my Church but the President can't tell the church what it should believe. Liberal and conservative alike, this has angered many Catholics ... Unfortunately, Univeristy wonks live typically inside the ivy walls ..

    February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • MUDDBUTT SPRAY

      THEN THE CHURCH SHOULD STOP TELLING THE REST OF US WHAT WE SHOULD BELIEVE AND DO

      IT'S A TWO WAY STREET AND THE CATHOLIC CULT/CORPORATION HAS HAD ITS STUPID FUCKING FINGERS WHERE THEY DON'T BELONG

      THAT CORPORATE CULT HAS BEEN RUINING LIVES AND KILLING PEOPLE AND BANGING KIDS AND IT NEEDS TO BE ABOLISHED

      February 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  7. Avin

    The article claims that "there are three discreet "Catholic votes” that really matter in American elections."
    Please note that the correct word is "discrete", not "discreet."

    February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  8. Ronald Reganzo

    President Rick Santorum

    February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  9. georgex

    The problem is not a yes or no, but is how many Catholics will vote the way their church dictates. When they say artificial birth control devices are evil and 98% of Catholics have actually used them there will still be some who are swayed by the bishops. Here they are influencing the politics of the country in trying to force into laws their minority point of view. They actually said voting for someone who supports freedom for women to choose abortions lead many to not vote for John Kerry for president. Organizations that are political do not get to keep donations as tax deductibles.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Susan - Tired American Woman

      The church will soon find itself under attack from the majority of Americans sick of being told what to do. I say let the church butt in. The more it says, the faster we'll take them down! I am not a Catholic and will fight to the end to defend my right to not have to do as they say!!

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

      Obama has lost the "Catholic" vote. That means the vote of people who are actually "Catholic" and not just the one's who claim to be but don't practice their faith. He may still win the "cafeteria catholic" vote, but I kind of doubt it because he has failed in a lot of other areas too, mainly the ridiculous debt that our country has incurred.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Mark

      The founder of the American Life League, Judie Brown, responded as follows to the lies of the murder mill Planned Parenthood as follows:
      The use of the 98% number to describe Catholics who use contraception is patently false.
      Here are the facts:
      Data were gathered using in-person interviews with 7,356 women aged 15 to 44 between June 2006 and December 2008. So 7,356 women were interviewed by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Survey of Family Growth http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg.htm (NSFG), among whom 28% were Catholic, and the study concludes that 98% of them took the birth control pill – so that means 98% of Catholic Women have taken the Pill???

      In other words, of 7,356 women, 2,060 identified themselves as Catholic. Whether these were non-practicing Catholics or not we do not know. But based on this tiny sample of Catholic women in the USA it is all of a sudden a fact that 98% of Catholic women use birth control?
      It's a lie... the fact that there is no longer any such thing as "sin" according to far too many in our Church and our culture does lead to the very mayhem we are seeing right now. God help us!

      February 20, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  10. Carlos Eton

    "On one hand, it’s been pretty clear that as American Catholics go, so goes the nation."

    Well, that explains the latest rash of child molestation in the news.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Jon

      Not too mention all the terrorism

      February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Jon

    Christianity is a myth that was stolen from ancient religious cults so I think their vote should be void period. I mean, if you'll believe in a bearded sky fairy then how can your vote be trusted?

    February 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Mark

      So, anyone who believes in a higher power should have their vote voided? Muslims ??? ... Advocate that and you are a bigot ... Advocate voiding the vote of Catholics and you are enlightened.

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

      You are so smart Jon, I'm glad you have it all figured out. Just in case God does exist though, I'm going to go ahead and have faith. It seem safer then you're very "enlightened" well thought-out philosophy on things.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  12. Steve

    I am Catholic and I would never vote for someone just because the church says so...to wit...Santorum.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Hunchback

      I'm Catholic and the my Church hasn't told me who to vote for, all she has done is defended herself and countless others to be able to practice their faith. The media likes to make this into a whole women's health thing and demonize the Church (same old story, just a different decade/century/millennium). The Church will be there long after the US goes away.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  13. MUDDBUTT SPRAY

    SITTING IN A CATHOLIC CHURCH IS LIKE GOING TO A FUNERAL EVERY SUNDAY WITH A BUNCH OF DEAD PEOPLE

    WHO WANTS TO SIT THERE AND LISTEN TO SOME PEDO DRONE ON ABOUT SOME RITUAL SHIT THAT DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING ANYWAY

    LET THOSE DEAD PEDOS ROT IN THEIR CHURCHES AND STAY OUT OF POLITICS

    February 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Nathan

      your statement has to be the most STUPID I have heard yet......

      February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  14. Sheiweesh

    What a shame for posting such trash that serves one purpose, to divide people, Catholics, and to distroy the foundation that this country was built on. Without religion there is no moral value. People are killing each other over a pack of gum, or a carton of cigarettes. Holy marriage has become a joke for now men are sleeping with each other, and so are women. No one thinks of the future anymore. It's day-to-day life without any values. Why do people hate religion so much? Church tought us to be peaceful, friendly, to always extend a hand and ask nothing in return, and most importantly to be Men of honor and dignity. If we go back to Church, we would strengthen our moral fiber, and once again be known by the good deeds we do for others. For those who will bring up the the abuse issues with the Catholic priests, know that Roman Catholics are the only Church that does not allow Its priests to marry, that is why we don't see this problem around the world with non RC. Being the largest religion in the world, Catholisism has a significant impact on how religion is perceived around the globe. The Christian Orthodox religion is the second largest in the world to the Catholic religion, and their priests have to be married before they become priests. We never hear about abuses in the Orthodox Church. I believe if Catholic priests get married, the world would be a much better place. I believe this is being discussed along the lines of uniting The Catholic and The Orthodox Churches as One. God Bless.

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

      Without an adopted moral code there is no value in religion. In fact, provided we stick to out community moral values, there is no need for religion at all.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Jon

      Christianity is a lie.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Skyler

      But you absolutely DO expect something in return. The promise of "eternal life." That's pretty selfish. I wonder if the Catholics who show up unexpected at my door would continue their neighborhood crusade even if they knew there was no ethereal reward at the end of it. Would you continue worshipping as you do if you accepted that the promises you've been told have been proven to be incorrect? Not a faith thing. I mean, you know for sure. I am confident your views about helping others will suddenly take a back seat to your more immediate and realistic time and money needs.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  15. Jam

    My support of the catholic church is based on my strong opposition to contraception. We love each of our six children and believe that the government should not only leave me alone to repopulate this country but also provide housing, food, education, child care, cable tv, non-taxed income, and ESL.

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

    Let's simplify. These are all myth votes.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  17. BillsCatz

    There are 65 million known Catholics in the US - it might startle the non-Catholic to realize members aren't the mindless drones others seem to believe. In fact, there are many, many good Church members who believe in the tenets of the religion and have little or no confidence in that gang of swine and swindlers in Rome. I'd be more concerned about the Fundies and their ilk voting for the kill-'em-all machine.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  18. Diest

    The Catholic vote is not a myth, but it is simply a mystery to the Catholic Hierarchy. The old men who run the cChurch are so out of touch with everyday practicing lay people , especially females, that they keep shooting themselves in the feet with middle aged weapons.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  19. Ron

    Excellent article. Right on the money.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  20. Jim

    Is that Marilyn Manson in the middle there? Boy he's had some work done... Go Catholics!

    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.