The Catholic Vote: An Interview with David Domke

David Domke is professor and chairman of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He teaches about political rhetoric, media relations and communication. He holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Domke is the author of “God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the ‘War on Terror,’ and the Echoing Press” and of “The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.” Prior to his academic career, he worked as a print journalist in the 1980s and 1990s for the Orange County Register and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other newspapers. 

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On Nov. 20, I interviewed Mr. Domke by telephone about his writing and work. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

Religion has long played a role in American politics. Is there such a thing as the “Catholic vote,” and if so, what is it?

There really are two Catholic votes. One is a more conservative vote and one is a more liberal vote. The difference between them, in terms of general tendencies, is that the more conservative Catholic vote—slightly right of moderate—is whiter in terms of racial identity and the more liberal vote—slightly left of center—tends to be more Latino. Neither vote is the extreme of conservatism or liberalism. So the U.S. Catholics are notable for being an ethnically diverse category. And within that, you really have two different groups who certainly find common ground theologically, but maybe on some economic and cultural matters begin to diverge a bit. Because they split on some issues, they form a very moderate bloc that is really a middle-of-the-road segment of the American electorate.

How does Catholic voter turnout compare to that of other Americans right now?

It’s pretty high. The percentage of the electorate, when you look at the national campaigns I focus on, is about one fourth of the electorate in midterm and presidential election years. It’s the most consistent turnout of any religious group across all national campaigns. Evangelicals, religiously unaffiliated voters, and mainline Protestants sometimes rise and fall. But Catholics are steady and that’s part of what makes them important politically.

What do Catholics bring to American politics that is distinctive from these other groups?

One, they’re ethnically diverse. White evangelicals, Jews, black Protestants, and many other groups are not ethnically diverse, while religiously unaffiliated voters in the United States tend to be overwhelmingly Caucasian. In seven voter faith categories identified by the Pew Research Center, Catholics are the only ethnically diverse group in any significant way. They’re just about 50-50 in terms of ethnic diversity, white and Latino, even though Latinos sometimes report as white on census forms.  

They’re also more politically diverse than other religious groups. If you know that someone is in any of those other six religious categories, you can make a very good bet where they stand politically on a range of issues. With Catholics, it’s a coin flip. You don’t know where they stand on immigration, same-sex marriage, health care, or other issues. So they’re really different from other religious groupings because of their ethnic diversity, political diversity, and their size in the electorate. They’ve become the largest voting bloc in the American electorate. Forty years ago, mainline Protestants were twice as large, but they’ve shrunk steadily over time.

After the Civil War, Catholics were a solid Democratic voting bloc until Richard Nixon won the Catholic vote for the Republican Party in 1972. Since Nixon, the Catholic vote has remained strongly divided, with Democrats winning on economic issues and Republicans making headway on family values. Do you think Catholic voters will ever again be solidly behind one party or the other?

If we look at the parties in their current positions, the answer is “probably not.” But it’s possible you could see some movement that would lead Catholics to swing 60-40 from one party to the other more permanently, as opposed to right now when they pretty much swing from election to election. If one party were to own immigration reform, that might bring the Catholic vote towards that party. If that same party was to make strides on same-sex marriage, without being too vocal about it, they might pull some Catholics towards them while pushing others away. If one party was to own compassion issues like health care and education in a significant way, that would pull Catholics towards them.

In the 1972 presidential election, the Democratic Party lost the Catholic vote for the first time as McGovern moved it to the left on issues like abortion and the Vietnam War. Although labor unions have continued to be a diminishing base of working class Catholic support for Democrats, Democrats have never fully recaptured the Catholic vote. How might the Democratic Party change its policies to be friendlier to Catholic voters?

One thing is that the Democrats have to embrace economic populism...They’ve actually steadily moved towards bigger business and Wall Street over the last several decades. That’s part of a decision they made with Bill Clinton’s arrival, they moved towards big business and nominees who didn’t look anything at all like populists. But the Paul Wellstone wing of the party—the Bernie Sanders wing—would be very attractive to Catholics who are right there with them from the beginning on economic matters. White working class Catholics would be there with the populism piece.

Would you include Obama in the economic populist wing?

No, I would not. He’s not as big business as Hillary Clinton, but certainly not in the populist wing. I’d call him a centrist Democrat.

While the Republican Party retains much of the Catholic vote on family values issues, particularly concerning abortion, its economic policies continue to repel many justice-minded Catholics. How might the Republican Party change its policies to be friendlier to Catholic voters?

I think that on immigration they’re really just killing themselves right now and they have been for some time. They have no chance to win the Latino vote with their current position on immigration and they’re increasingly pushing away justice-minded white Catholics. So immigration is the major point of divergence where the Republican Party struggles. So to me, that’s the key issue, and I think the Bushes have known this for some time. So George W. Bush did pretty well on it and Jeb Bush is very moderate, even slightly progressive on some elements of immigration, but whether he could make it through the GOP presidential primaries with that position is a big question for him. Immigration reform would help Republicans seize a 60-40 hold on the Catholic vote.    

Following Republican gains in the recent midterm elections, President Obama and the Democratic Congress were divided over the timing of his recent executive order on immigration. Are religious interests exercising any influence on current power dynamics in the Democratic Party?

I think so. I don’t think the religious interests are as strong right now as the emerging demographic changes in the country, with the rise of Latinos as a larger voting bloc particularly in the West and in Florida and Texas. But because there is a substantial Catholic subset of Latinos, as well as a rising body of Latino evangelicals, it’s hard to say religion plays no role. Immigration is the one issue where President Obama has been able to get a hearing among evangelicals, who are very big on welcoming the stranger. But he’s got no support among the Tea Party Republicans at all.

President Obama has quoted Pope Francis as a moral authority on issues like immigration. Why?

The pope is an incredible symbol for Catholics. Pope John Paul II was an important symbol to conservative Republicans, but now progressives have “their pope” and the ability to cite his authority on certain social causes like same-sex marriage, immigration, and abortion—areas where this pope has said, let’s not make these things the only focal point. He gives Obama a doctrinal support on social issues that Democrats have almost never had. Any politician worth their salt is going to cite the pope if the pope is popular and outspoken on issues which support the politcian’s positions. Bush had that luxury with John Paul II—not on the war, but on cultural issues—and Obama has that support now. Not for his particular positions on abortion and same-same marriage, but for his broader approach of inclusivity.

What is the significance of the U.S. Supreme Court having a Catholic majority for the first time?

It’s an amazing thing. We have six Catholics and three Jews on a Supreme Court that had always had a Protestant until now. It’s stunning in the American demographic history of where political power is located. Its significance is that it shows how conservatives have found common ground with the Catholic Church, because most of these Catholics were appointed by Republicans. At the highest levels of politics, Catholics have come to be seen as more acceptable than white evangelicals, who are seen more as zealots. Catholic conservatives are seen as moderate, but doctrinally consistent over time in a way that white evangelicals still like. It’s a way of giving white evangelicals what they want—they certainly supported these justices when they were appointed—without putting up justices who just won’t fly.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have issued voting guides in the past, but with little practical takeaway. What can they do to communicate better with Catholic voters and lawmakers in the future?

That’s a question about the church as an institution. I’m more concerned with how politicians use religion for political purposes than with the religious side of the equation. But it does seem to me that the U.S. church has lost a lot of its human credibility over the molestation and pedophilia scandal in a way that is very significant and difficult to overcome right now. They haven’t lost their doctrinal credibility, but their credibility in terms of living out what they preach has suffered. So institutionally, the bishops just don’t exercise as much influence in the United States as a pope, who can become a symbol because he stands alone in a certain sense as being above the fray. Strategically, I just don’t know what they can do right now short of engaging in a wholesale audit complete with apologies and acceptance of critique. I don’t know how that could happen or what could be done at this time.

Many analysts say President Obama has exhausted most of his political capital on health care reform, an issue where he has divided Catholics and alienated the bishops with his insistence on mandated contraception coverage. If the Clinton wing reclaims power in the Democratic Party, nominating Hillary for president in 2016, will the party’s relations with the U.S. bishops improve?

I think the relations of the Democratic Party with a whole number of institutions will improve when Obama is not the standard-bearer for the party. Partly that’s because of things which are not his doing at all, like his racial identity embodying a certain kind of change, and those things are not under his control. But partly it’s because of the way he himself has led and governed, his communications strategy and the unwillingness of his administration to foundationally partner with other institutions. The two of those things together, combined with an absolute unrelenting opposition to him in the Republican Party, have made it very difficult for the Democratic Party to strengthen its existing relations with others. So his departing the stage will actually help the Democratic Party in all kinds of ways, which is really unfortunate because it didn’t have to be this way. That’s one reason why I think it will help.

The second is that the Clintons generally are very adept at building relations. It still remains to be seen whether Hillary will have one-fourth of the same political skills as Bill Clinton, but if she’s got even half, we’re going to see a depth of important relationship building in the next campaign that Obama doesn’t seem either capable or desirous of doing. I mean the Clintons have made a lifetime out of knowing when to show up, who to talk to, and how to praise people publicly. Even if the policies don’t change at all, the Democratic Party will be able to build stronger connections with the bishops if the Clintons regain the presidential nomination.

What impact, if any, has Pope Francis had on the current political scene?

He’s certainly given the Democratic Party a symbol, at the highest level of religion in the world, and has helped them to begin to move away from having to be defensive at least on same-sex relations. His arrival coincides with the cresting movement in America of same-sex marriage to gaining legal and cultural viability.... He’s also put the Republicans slightly on the defensive about same-sex marriage, as they were so used to having a pope who made it a big issue, and this new pope is popular. He has given the Democrats their first friend in the papal office since maybe 1964.

What do you hope people will take away from your academic work?

I do some different streams of work, some on religious identity and some on racial identity in American politics. In both cases, I think what makes the American experiment work is our intellectual and cultural pluralism. If we can’t embrace that reality, we break faith with the founders of this country, who set us on its course even though they didn’t fully live it out themselves. If anything, I hope people walk away from my scholarship with the idea that the way politicians use religion aren’t always helpful and can in fact be deeply divisive.

Do you have any hopes for the future?

I have nothing but hope, because I genuinely believe people are capable of incredible things, and because the Civil Rights movement showed us symbolically how we can build the beloved community. It’s rooted in faith and in people who transcend their differences. I’m a professor who loves working with young people and bringing together diverse groups because we’re all broken, but we’re all capable of remarkable accomplishments.

Any last thoughts?

Catholics have never held the kind of political capital in the United States that they hold now. It’s unthinkable, going back even to Kennedy, to conceive that Catholics would hold such power. Catholics today are middle-of-the-road, swing voters, ethnically diverse, and politically diverse. Consider how many Catholics will be running for the White House in 2016. We have six Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court and we’ve had Catholics who have been leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives, across both parties, in the last eight years. It’s amazing, considering the previous position of Catholics in the political arena as a frequent target of discrimination, as a population that has been marginalized for most of American history. At this time, I think they are the most powerful political group in America, and I just find that fascinating.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joseph Manta
3 years 4 months ago
It seems to me that Professor Domke is getting his perception of Pope Francis from the popular press rather than the words of Pope Francis. There is no doubt that Pope Francis has emphasized the Church's long time teaching on the social gospel and that he has adopted a softer "marketing" approach to the faith. But I have seen nothing in his words that indicate in the slightest that he will change the Church's teaching on abortion and same sex marriage. Indeed, he often uses the same language used by Saint John Paull II and Pope Benedict XVI. And it is the Democrat's uniform position on these two issues that most trouble Catholics, including this Catholic democrat.
Joseph Manta
3 years 4 months ago
It seems to me that Professor Domke is getting his perception of Pope Francis from the popular press rather than the words of Pope Francis. There is no doubt that Pope Francis has emphasized the Church's long time teaching on the social gospel and that he has adopted a softer "marketing" approach to the faith. But I have seen nothing in his words that indicate in the slightest that he will change the Church's teaching on abortion and same sex marriage. Indeed, he often uses the same language used by Saint John Paull II and Pope Benedict XVI. And it is the Democrat's uniform position on these two issues that most trouble Catholics, including this Catholic democrat.
Joseph Manta
3 years 4 months ago
It seems to me that Professor Domke is getting his perception of Pope Francis from the popular press rather than the words of Pope Francis. There is no doubt that Pope Francis has emphasized the Church's long time teaching on the social gospel and that he has adopted a softer "marketing" approach to the faith. But I have seen nothing in his words that indicate in the slightest that he will change the Church's teaching on abortion and same sex marriage. Indeed, he often uses the same language used by Saint John Paull II and Pope Benedict XVI. And it is the Democrat's uniform position on these two issues that most trouble Catholics, including this Catholic democrat.

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