Political Animal


February 20, 2012 2:26 PM The Myth of “The Catholic Vote”

By Ed Kilgore

A good deal of the excitement over the recent contraception coverage mandate has resulted from the hopes of Republicans, and the fears of some Catholic liberals, that the controversy could prove to be a “wedge issue” that would drive significant numbers of Catholic voters into the GOP column in November.

The assumption behind such scenarios, of course, is that there is a self-conscious “Catholic vote” that operates independently of the rest of the electorate, and that can be moved by the pronouncements of Catholic religious leaders.

My latest column for The New Republic examines this assumption, and finds it uncompelling in several respects: Catholic voters are remarkably similar to all voters in their partisan inclinations; they do not have any overall inclination to follow the Church hierarchy on hot-button cultural issues; and in fact, they are not responding differently from other Americans to the contraception coverage mandate controversy. “The Catholic Vote” looks just like America.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal’s Craig Gilbert addressed the same issue recently and reached the same conclusion. Yes, the sizable “Catholic vote” in Wisconsin is slightly more Republican than the electorate at large, but that’s because it is overwhelmingly white (compared to the Catholic population nationally with its large and growing Latino minority). As Gilbert shows, white Catholic voters break down much as white voters generally do in the major battleground states.

Still another writer scoffing at the idea of some semi-monolithic “Catholic vote” recently was Stephen S. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, in an article for CNN:

[T]he 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.

Schneck notes, in fact, that Catholic voters’ willingness to take orders from religious leaders on moral issues is steadily declining:

88% of Catholics in the [CNN] 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.

Schneck does observe there are subcultures of Catholic voters who are worth paying distinctive attention to: most obviously, Latino Catholics, but also “intentional Catholics” more likely to actively embrace Church teachings, and “cultural Catholics” who tend to be somewhat more culturally conservative than other voters, but also more “populist” on economic issues.

But the days when—to cite one leading example—there was a vast gulf in the political affiliations of German Catholics and Protestants of relatively similar circumstances are long gone. Voters who happen to be Catholic are affected by the same sorts of cross-currents affecting other voters—but not so much by their distinctive religious tradition.

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.


  • K in VA on February 20, 2012 2:42 PM:

    One could posit there is such a thing as the Anti-Bishop Catholic (ABC) vote that's generally so pissed off at the hogwash flowing from the pulpit that they vote to the contrary as a matter of course. Two examples: (1) Several recent polls show in-the-pew-regularly and C&E catholics alike think insurance should cover contraception (like everybody else, they can think of better uses for their money than paying outrageous prices for the Pill). (2) Multiple polls in the past few years show support for marriage equality to be equal to or higher among Catholics than among mainstream protestants and many other groups.

    In other words, though they tend not to be vocal about it, when they get in the voting booth ABC Catholics tell the bishops to stuff a [cas]sock in their collective pieholes.

  • Clem Yeobright on February 20, 2012 2:54 PM:

    Fall 1960;

    14-yr-old Sue: Janet, who are you guys voting for?

    14-yr-old Janet: We're Republicans, but we're Catholic, so I guess we're voting for Kennedy.

    14-yr-old Clem: Jeezus, Janet, why not hand it to them on a platter? Kennedy said he doesn't WANT your vote on that basis!

    But, of course, times have changed. Haven't they?

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on February 20, 2012 3:02 PM:

    I think they just got tired of a 14th century religion in a 21st century world .
    The whole church hierarchy was about control and maintaining the the wealth of the Vatican.
    People won't listen to that shit anymore.
    If those old fools in the red beanies and dresses could figure out a way to re-institute the inquisition they probably would.
    man....those were the good old days ...everybody was afraid of us.

  • liam foote on February 20, 2012 3:19 PM:

    I come from a very devoue Catholic family. My parents were founders of the Christian Family Movement (CFM) in Wisconsin, mom was president of the La Crosse Diocesan Board of Catholic Women, and I attended Holy Cross Seminary in La Crosse my freshman year in high school until they asked me to leave.

    It was about this time that Vatican II changed the Mass from Latin to vernacular and the music from majestic old hymns to hokey campfire ballads. I refer to this period as 'Nuns with Tambourines'. I am raising my two young sons in the Catholic Church and we discuss religion and spirituality regularly. But I have to say that not much of our involvement is based upon guidance from the USCCB.

  • gus on February 20, 2012 3:37 PM:

    Might be wrong but it always seems like when the Catholic church is dragged into electoral politics on these issues it is a two-fold strategy on the part of republicans, who more often than not drag up the issue.

    One, there are one issue voters. Sure, a lot of them are old but given that one wedge issue they care about deeply they will at least say they will turn out to prevent something atrocious from happening. As Catholic voters go on one, big divisive issue, so MAY protestant voters. However, Santorum isn’t doing any protestant coalition builders any favors by dissing protestants. (who, in some small, exclusive confab did endorse that mealy mouthed stain, right?)

    Two, by raising the issue, republican politicians seem to do be doing something which can be called Rope-A-Pope.

    By getting upper-ups in the church to speak out on an issue, it extends the story and potentially takes the issue to the pulpit. The media is more likely to play along with the Vatican Says. I know this strategy of getting it to the pulpit seems to work rather well with protestant churches, especially the ones that are evangelical.

    So, it extends the story in the news media, maybe adding some extra cycles on the issue and allows for “more credible” voices to pick up the charge against us secular democrats. Though specifically, the target is an issue or the democratic politicians. And, the issue is treated like a hot potato which is best lobbed by those “more credible” impassioned people in the churches.

    If a particular issue gets the Big Kahuna (his infallibleness, the Pope) to pipe up, I’m sure the republicans who squealed loudest sleep well at night.

  • bob h on February 20, 2012 3:44 PM:

    It seems the church hierarchy has views on social issues that are well aligned with the Democratic Party: concern about the poor and wealth inequality, war, capitalist excesses, the universal healthcare bill itself. Why would that hierarchy act in concert with a Republican Party that exalts wealth and that promises to repeal universal healthcare right off the bat? There is a medieval, pig-headed stupidity about the Bishops

  • hornblower on February 20, 2012 3:51 PM:

    Good post Ed. but the fact that so-called liberal Catholics like EJ worry about this being a wedge issue just shows how out of touch the beltway crowd is with average Americans. Presently, the local media here in NY is ga-ga about the new Cardinal Dolan. Most New Yorkers Catholic and other couldn't care less. The media always overplays religious angles.

  • T2 on February 20, 2012 4:08 PM:

    the catholic vote has traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to helping the less fortunate.
    Clearly, helping the less fortunate is not a priority for Republicans and especially TeaPary types.
    I don't see rank and file Catholic's breaking with the Democrats because Richard Santorum tells them to. Or some old child molester wearing a big pointy hat and a fancy dress.

  • thebewilderness on February 20, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Political instruction from the pulpit worked for the evangelicals very well so I suppose the Catholic church was bound to try it as well. Also I would remind you that the kerfluffle over the refusal to permit Kerry communion for his position on abortion had an effect on low info Catholic voters in 2004.

  • Jim Stagg on February 20, 2012 6:26 PM:

    A column like this always brings out the BEST in people, y'know what I mean? If you can't prove your point, shut up. Otherwise quote statistics (lies, if necessary) and, at least, the sources for those lies.

    On the other hand, if you want reasoned discussion , without calling names, without an anti-Catholic bias showing, guess we'll have to find another blog.

    But please don't cast a Democratic spin column as useful opinion....it's not; it's just so much trash that could have been printed (and probably came from) Media Mutters.

  • Bob M on February 20, 2012 7:33 PM:

    Love the idea of an Anti-Bishop Catholic (ABC) vote. Sign me up!

  • JoanneinDenver on February 20, 2012 8:44 PM:

    The problem is that the presidential election is not a national vote. It is a state by state vote that then awards votes in the Electoral College. The "niche" votes of some older catholics in some states, particularly Ohio and PA, could swing the state for the Republican candidate. Ohio and PA went for Obama in 2008, but they went republican in 2010.

  • Doug on February 20, 2012 8:54 PM:

    "...if you want reasoned discussion, without calling names..." Jim Stagg @ 6:26 PM

    Perhaps you're arguing that people shouldn't be upset when an organization calling itself religious, flouts laws enacted to protect children from sexual assault because those accused of the assaults are priests in that church? I wouldn't think the protection of child molesters from legal charges as a good way to advertise the values of one's church. I could be wrong.
    Personally, if I were a Catholic, I'd be embarrassed and ashamed by the actions, so far, of the Catholic Church and grateful that, again so far, all the actions against the Catholic Church have been limited to verbal assaults and not physical ones.
    Once the Catholic Church begins abiding by the laws of the various nations where it operates, I'm certain you'll see a lot less "name-calling".
    'til then...