Political Animal


February 29, 2012 9:48 AM Santorum Loses Catholic Vote—But Did He Ever Have It?

By Ed Kilgore

As they awaited the final results from Michigan, probably the single biggest topic of conversation in the chattering classes last night was the shocking news from the exit polls that Rick Santorum had lost Michigan Catholics to Mitt Romney by a 44-37 margin. Immediately there was speculation that Rick’s visceral dissing of JFK’s church-state relations speech might have contributed significantly to this result, or had perhaps cost him Michigan altogether.

That was my initial reaction, too, until I started wondering: why did we all assume Santorum had an advantage among Catholics in the first place? Yes, he’s an outspoken “traditionalist” Catholic, cozy with its famous Opus Dei elite, happiest in surroundings like Florida’s overtly traditionalist Ave Maria University, and very self-identified with the Bishops in their current fight with the Obama administration over its contraception coverage mandate.

Yes, as I and others have amply documented, the idea that Catholics are more conservative than Americans generally, even on “social issues,” is pretty much a myth. But you had to figure that the kind of Catholics who choose to vote in Republican primaries are pretty significantly correlated with “traditionalists” like Rick, right?

That’s actually not so clear at all. The last contest with exit polling by the networks was Florida. There Santorum won 13% of the overall vote, but just 10% of Catholics; Mitt Romney ran a bit better among Catholics than he did overall. Now maybe you could say Florida’s heavily Latino Catholic vote is atypical. What about South Carolina? There Santorum won 17% of the overall vote, but just 15% of Catholics. Again, Romney peformed a bit better among Catholics than among voters generally.

If you want to write off both those states because Santorum did not campaign heavily there, and/or because fellow-Catholic Newt Gingrich was the most important non-Romney candidate, then go back to Iowa. For some reason, Edison Research’s entrance polls there did not break down voters by religious affiliation, but did ask if voters considered themselves evangelical or “born-again” Christians. Now that’s a term normally associated with Protestants, though ABC’s polling analyst Gary Langer has suggested that 14% of Catholics identify themselves as “born-again.” Even if you take that “born-again Catholic” minority into account, it doesn’t look like Rick did that well among his co-religionists, winning only 14% of non-“born-agains” as opposed to his overall statewide percentage of 25% (again, Romney romped among non-“born-agains,” which obviously includes mainline Protestants, Jews, the unchurched, etc.).

So based on prior evidence, there’s really no particular reason to think the “Catholic vote” was ever Santorum’s to lose. His voting base has always been conservative evangelical Protestants, who also make up a high percentage of the voters fixated on making abortion illegal, a particularly strong Santorum demographic. I’m sure the JFK slur didn’t help, but this is one “surprise” in Michigan that really shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on February 29, 2012 10:07 AM:

    So, why would Santorum do better with Evangelicals than with Catholics? I suspect that, perhpas, for many Catholics, Santorum is an embarrassment and reflects badly on Catholicism.

    For Evangelicals, they can appreciate his extremism without any taint to their denomination. They don't care if he embarrasses Catholics.

  • Gene O'Grady on February 29, 2012 10:12 AM:

    I used to be a very active Catholic, and was involved in Catholic adult education, for those joining or returning to the Church. Santorum seems to be a recognizable type, the kind of guy who was an indifferent cradle Catholic, and probably did a few things he was ashamed up, and then "got religion" (usually a Protestant term) and turned into a bishop-kissing extremist, self-centered extremist. I also used to try to coordinate the volunteers who the liturgies happen, and never saw the Santorum type out there doing any of the behind the scenes work that makes it happen.

    Oh, and I actually liked my small involvement with Opus Dei, and didn't find it particularly elitist at all.

  • Diane Rodriguez on February 29, 2012 10:26 AM:

    Women! Women! Women! As a female Catholic I wouldn't touch Santorum with a ten foot heavily used turd pole. I think you also underestimate the impact of his lets-keep-them-stupid meme on education. Anything that impacts your kids is always a huge issue for women. It also isn't a big stretch to see his ignorance platform on education to be directed more toward women than men. It fits nicely with the barefoot, pregnant, blind-folded, stupid, husband is king of all he surveys plan he's got going for women. What a pathetic inadequate skeezeball – Seek life elsewhere Rick.

  • massappeal on February 29, 2012 10:27 AM:

    Good catch, Ed. I suspect part of Santorum's anti-appeal for Catholic voters is that much of his rhetoric, and his approach to politics and faith is more typical of an Evangelical Protestant approach than a mainstream Roman Catholic approach.

    Catholic social and political teaching (as you know) has evolved over centuries and around the globe. Consequently, it's full of nuance and contextualization---not Santorum's strong suit when speaking on the stump.

  • You Don't Say on February 29, 2012 10:30 AM:

    Santorum is the pompous, pious parishioner they can't stand that they sit next to in the pew each week.

  • internet tough guy on February 29, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Santorum is a self-hating Catholic, so it is natural for him to lose the Catholic vote.

  • Keith Jenkins on February 29, 2012 10:49 AM:

    Luckily, I think American Catholics in general are more sensible, more compassionate, more progressive, and more enlightened than Sanitorium (because he's craaazy) is.

  • revchicoucc on February 29, 2012 10:53 AM:

    There is a craving in fundamentalist and very conservative evangelical Protestant circles (there are differences between those groups) for authority, for someone to tell not just them but everyone what to think and how to live. While authoritarian local pastors fill that role, there is no universal moral authority in any form of Protestantism as there is in Catholicism.

    I think Santorum regrets not becoming priest. In his mind, by now, in his early 50s, he might be a bishop or, even better, an archbishop on his way to being a cardinal and, maybe, on his way to becoming the first American Pope. The Presidency is the next best thing to the Papacy in his mind, his strange, strange mind.

  • DAY on February 29, 2012 10:56 AM:

    In the darkness of night Santorum knows that his 17% loss in PA was a precursor.
    His recent statements are part of his new plan to seek a spot in the Karzai Administration. Or Ahmadinejad's. . .

  • Rick Massimo on February 29, 2012 11:53 AM:

    Rick Santorum isn't a representative Catholic. He's representative of the Bill Donohues of the world, the professionally aggrieved Catholic theocrats who are the only Catholics most of Our Media Stars know, and thus think are the real Catholics.

    As several commenters above have noted, every practicing Catholic knows a Rick Santorum, and every practicing member of any denomination (as opposed to the Beltway-journalist Church of the Savvy) knows that just because you share a religion with someone doesn't mean you have to like them.

  • cmdicely on February 29, 2012 12:32 PM:

    why did we all assume Santorum had an advantage among Catholics in the first place? Yes, he’s an outspoken “traditionalist” Catholic

    Which, to anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church, would be a sign of his distance from most of the Catholic community, not his likely support from it.

    Traditionalist Catholics are barely within (or, in many cases, actually outside of) the boundaries of the Catholic Church -- way off on its right-wing fringe (theologically as well as politically.) They certainly aren't in the mainstream of the Catholic community in the US.

  • Wally on February 29, 2012 4:02 PM:

    Whoa, people. Tom Hanks movies and Opus Dei aside, there is a very powerful right wing faction within the int'l and less so, American Catholic churches. Remember, this is a 2000 year old institution with a track record of empire building, wealth amalgamation and machiavelian politics. To rise up in the Catholic church, one best goes right.

    For example, Ratzinger became the current Holy Roman Emperor by crushing the supposed commies - liberation thelogists in Latin America. You know, the ones that objected to death squads. So the right winger becomes Pope and the ones ministering to the poor, e.g. Guttierez and Boff, are ex-communicated. These dukes and counts do have a lot of support in places like Africa and some support in many scotch-irish and german catholic communities in the middle of the U.S.

    Oh yeah, I started Catholic school at nursery school and attended for 19 years. The closest thing I have to a congregation is a group that meets in the anteroom to the gym and has to recruit priests from the Berkeley Theological Seminary because the Archdiocese won't bless the touchy feely (i.e. actual supportive) congregation with an assigned priest.

  • Mike on February 29, 2012 5:33 PM:

    As a proud ex-Catholic, I can confidently say that most Catholics are Catholics because their parents were Catholics, not because they explicitly chose Catholicism. So it wasn't necessarily ideology that brought them into the Church. Further, since there are roughly 65 Million American Catholics, it stands to reason that, based on sheer numbers, their overall poll results on issues would tend to drift towards the mean. In addition, Catholics, perhaps more than any religion, tend to differ in their opinions from their leaders. So supporting the views of Catholic LEADERS isn't necessarily the same as supporting the views of Catholics as a whole. Finally, if you actually look at Catholic teaching as a whole, most of its philosophy is closer to what Democrats support rather than Republicans. Other than abortion, birth control, and gay marriage, Catholic teaching doesn't really have that much in common with conservatism. Things like Medicare, welfare, public schooling, public housing, etc., are all SUPPORTED by the Catholic Church. So to think that a) Santorum speaks for all Catholics, or b) there is actually such thing as a Catholic vote is absurd.

  • Janeway on February 29, 2012 6:42 PM:

    The 5 ex ambassadors to the Holy See endorsed Romney in a letter. I really doubt they did not have the nod of the Vatican. Catholics know a good man when they see him as an LDS (Mormon)I would never vote for Harry Reid just because he was "Mormon". Santorum is the Harry Reid of the Catholic Church. Why does no one notice that Catholics don't seem to support Gingrich in great numbers. Unlike Evangelicals, I really doubt their Parrish Priests tell them how to vote any more that "Mormons" are told how to vote. We are encouraged to get informed and vote not who, party or anything else.
    I have a feeling that Catholics have their own mind.

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  • Pious on March 07, 2012 8:18 AM:

    Everyday catholics are more divorced from their leadership than any other religion. By large margins they ignore church doctrine on social issues in a way you just don't see with protestants, and certainly not with evangelicals. Catholics love thems a pope, but they certainly don't want one as a president who can give doctrine they ignore the force of law.

    Yeah, I was raised catholic.