In 2008, “the Catholic vote” looks just like the national electorate as a whole. It mirrored the electorate in the previous two national elections as well. In 2000 it split for Gore over Bush 50 to 47, just as the country as a whole divided evenly between the two. In 2004, Catholics chose Bush over Kerry by 52 to 47, while the country did the same by 51 to 48. (By contrast, mainline Protestants, the large religious grouping that next most closely mirrors the entire electorate, preferred Bush to Gore 53 to 43 and Bush to Kerry 55 to 45.) So the question remains: Is there a Catholic vote in the United States, or are there simply lots of voters who happen to be Catholic?
In the Beginning
The idea that there might be a Catholic vote to contend for did not occur to American politicians until 1832, when Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay Sr. competed to line up the modest number of Catholic voters then on offer in New York and Pennsylvania. Yet by the 1850s, massive immigration from Ireland and Germany was creating big blocs of new voters, particularly in the emerging industrial cities and towns of New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Many of these Catholic immigrants ended up forging a long-term identity as Democrats, perhaps less at first because of the pull of the Democratic Party than because of the active hostility of Protestant antagonists clustered in the Whig, Know Nothing and emerging Republican parties, which pushed immigrants toward the Democrats.
Nativists were deeply fearful of the impact of purportedly priest-ridden Catholic hordes. The first legislative proposal issued by William Minor, governor of Connecticut in 1855, was to extend the state’s residency requirement for naturalization from five to 20 years—a gambit transparently intended to neutralize the voting power of immigrant Irish Catholics. American politics was powered by what political scientists call “negative reference”: mutual mistrust.
The consolidation of Catholic and Democratic identity was accelerated by struggles for the vote and for public funding for Catholic schools, many of which were led by pugnacious Catholics like Archbishop John Hughes of New York, known as Dagger John, who in 1844, in the wake of riots in Philadelphia in which two Catholic churches were destroyed by arson, told city officials that “if a single Catholic church is burned in New York, the city will become a second Moscow.” Napoleon had almost completely destroyed Moscow by fire in 1812.
While Catholic clergymen and the institutional church were frequently savaged during the mid-19th century by nativist complaints (like Thomas Nast’s famous anti-Catholic cartoon, “The American River Ganges,” which depicted vested Catholic bishops as crocodiles, their miters lined with flashing teeth, swimming ashore to devour American schoolchildren), these attacks usually focused on administrative rather than electoral politics, and especially on schooling. When it came to voting, the primary contemporary emphasis in politicking, journalism and scholarship tended to be on ethnicity, region and social class. Democrats were portrayed as poor Irish immigrants or Southern white males, more than as Catholics or Southern Baptists.
The Turn of the Century
Nonetheless, there was a Catholic vote in late 19th-century America. Studies published in the 1970s by Richard Jensen, Paul Kleppner and others asserted persuasively that in the presidential elections of the late 19th century, Catholics of Irish, German and French background voted for the Democratic candidate at rates of 75 percent and higher. Catholics also formed the voting base of the Democratic political machines emerging in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago.
In those days, however, Catholics did not stand out as a unique religious voting bloc, since the entire electorate was a complex mosaic of “ethno-religious” groups. Seventy-five percent or more of Northern Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians just as reliably voted Republican, for example. There were also exceptions to the rule: Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., was a vocal Republican, and the Republican urban machines of cities like Cincinnati and Philadelphia depended on Catholic votes.
But by the early 20th century, the concentration of Catholics in urban areas, the dynamic and mutually reinforcing effect of ethnic and religious identity, and the conscious Catholic practice of building a subculture supported by institutions positioned to insulate Catholics from an aggressive, Protestant culture all combined to nurture a distinctive and coherent Catholic vote. And a new factor helped perpetuate and perhaps even intensify the Catholic preference for Democratic voting—an alliance between working-class (and particularly labor union) interests and evolving Catholic social and economic thought that helped produce the American welfare state.
Catholic voters were foundational partners in the New Deal coalition. Indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt was quoting long passages from Quadragesimo Anno at Democratic rallies in 1934. The Catholic vote reached its all-time pinnacle of coherence in the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy won more than 80 percent of Catholic votes.
That was something of a last hurrah. As Catholics moved quickly up the social scale and into the suburbs after World War II, many of the social bonds that held together the old urban Catholic subculture relaxed. Probably a majority of Catholics voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower in both 1952 and 1956, and widespread cold war suspicion of left-wing politics produced Catholic Republican elected officials like Senator Joseph McCarthy.
By the late 1960s, the old Catholic Democratic voter bloc was breaking up, following the dissolution of the old urban Catholic subculture. The Catholic working class was eroding under pressure and unhappy with the new social policies of both the church and the Democratic Party, a process accelerated by Roe v. Wade in 1973. White Catholics were now firmly entrenched in the American mainstream and spanned the entire social scale. And educated suburban Catholics, like their neighbors, were voting more often for Republican candidates and registering as Republicans or, more frequently, as independents. In many places, especially in the Midwest, even working-class Catholic voters could be swayed; and they moved to support Republican presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan. Catholics were plentiful in the leadership ranks of the Republican ascendancy that established itself in the 1980s and 1990s.
During these years, the voting patterns of Catholics grew still more complex because of a countertrend: a new round of mass immigration was transforming both the U.S. and Catholic populations after 1965. As they became citizens and voters, most of these immigrants, Latino Catholics primarily, tended to vote strongly Democratic. Since the 1970s, two pools of Catholic voters have evolved: one white and native born, the other immigrant and largely Latino.
The Catholic Vote Today
For their part, white Catholics have been much more evenly distributed between the two major parties than they were before 1970. They have been a key swing vote in presidential elections, supporting Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in the 1980s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. But even white Catholic voters are no monolith. From state to state, the vote differential among Catholics in the 2004 presidential election ranged from a 27-point margin for Bush in Virginia to a 25-point margin for Kerry in Washington State. If mostly white Catholic constituencies can vary by as much as 52 points from one state to another, there is a real question whether there even exists such a thing as a “white Catholic vote” in any meaningful sense.
Region counts for a lot here. Survey data show, for example, that white Catholics in the South are much more conservative than white Catholics in the Pacific Northwest. But even within regions, the white Catholic vote can vary a good deal. In Michigan, John Kerry carried Catholics by 1 percentage point whereas next door in Ohio, Bush carried them by 11 points. Why? Because white Catholics in Michigan include many Eastern Europeans with union backgrounds in the auto industry, whereas Catholics in Ohio include large numbers of conservative small-business types who trace their roots to Germany.
Over the past two decades, a significant split in the American electorate has developed between more and less observant Americans of all religious persuasions; that is true for Catholics as well. Those who attend Mass regularly vote Republican in considerably greater numbers than those who do not.
In a recent New Yorker article, Peter J. Boyer recounted how Karl Rove and Deal Hudson sought to capitalize on this phenomenon in 2004. According to Boyer, Rove and Hudson recognized that while there was no longer a generic Catholic vote, there was a traditional orthodox segment of the vote just waiting to be enlisted in the Republican cause. So they went out and mobilized traditionalist Catholics, turning the Catholic presidential vote from majority Gore in 2000 to majority Bush in 2004.
It made a good story, showing how those two boy geniuses managed to conjure up the long-awaited alliance of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The only trouble is that it was not true. Bush won the Catholic vote in 2004 not by making inroads among traditionalist Catholics, but among less observant ones. Infrequent Mass-goers accounted for the lion’s share of the difference, going from supporting Gore in 2000 by 50 to 46 to supporting Bush in 2004 by 51.4 to 48.6.
Central to much thinking about Catholic voting these days has been the partisan divide on abortion and life issues generally. By Democratic Party standards, Joe Biden is center-right on abortion. His NARAL Pro-Choice America rating is only 36 percent—a result of his opposition to public funding for abortions and his support of the ban on the partial-birth abortion procedure. Biden accepts as part of his faith his church’s teaching that life begins at conception, but strongly supports Roe v. Wade on the grounds that he does not want to impose his religious views on those who do not share them. That is to say, he declines to go along with the Catholic Church’s position that, inasmuch as its position on abortion is derived from natural law rather than revelation, it may be imposed by law on non-Catholics.
Naturally, this position is beyond the pale for many, but among rank-and-file Catholics, it is a very common position. According to the American National Election Studies, 1980-2000, 42 percent of white Catholics are either completely pro-choice or believe that abortion should be permitted for reasons of rape, incest or danger to the woman’s life, or if the need for it has been clearly established. Only 19 percent follow the church’s teaching that abortion should never be permitted. Latino Catholics are more pro-life than white Catholics, but not by much.
What does this mean? In a recent study of the political behavior of white Catholics, the political scientist Stephen Mockabee, of the University of Cincinnati, controlling for such factors as age, income and education, discovered that the candidates’ position on abortion had no statistically significant effect on the Catholic presidential vote choice in 2004. How could this be? One way to understand it is that while older white Catholics are much more pro-life than younger ones, they tend to be far more loyal Democratic voters. “Post Vatican II” Catholics—those born after 1960—have trended Republican, but only 7 percent share their church’s position on abortion. When it came to the issues, what pushed white Catholics toward George Bush in 2004 was their support for capital punishment and their opposition to gay marriage; it was not John Kerry’s support for abortion rights.
This time around, it is not the Republicans who are working hard for the Catholic vote, but the Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s Catholic outreach was particularly effective during the primary season, putting together the networks of activists and the e-mail lists that enabled her to give Barack Obama more than a run for his money in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Eric McFadden, who ran Catholic outreach for the Clinton campaign, believes that Obama, whose people are now working the Clinton networks, has a fighting chance to capture the white Catholic vote in November. While that may be overly optimistic, the Democratic candidate does seem poised to capture Catholics as a whole. A survey conducted in September for the organization Faith in Public Life found that Catholics 35 and older are evenly divided between Obama and McCain, but that younger Catholics preferred Obama 55 percent to 40 percent. As in the electorate as a whole, the young seem to be leading the way this year.