The Future of the Catholic Vote

A close examination of exit poll data suggests it is not as bleak as some think.

The media, pundits, and bloggers have had a lot to say about the Catholic vote and its switch from supporting a pro-life Republican in 2004 to a radically pro-abortion Democrat in 2008. Most of the usual suspects have gloated over the change, which seemingly proves that American Catholic voters do not prioritize the life issue.

These observers hope this last election cycle has broken the trend toward socially conservative voting patterns among Catholics, who for the first time since 1988 had supported a Republican for president just four years ago. With the move toward social liberalism by affluent inner-suburban voters, devotion to liberalism in general by younger voters, and the ever-expanding, Democratic-leaning Hispanic voter bloc, what are the chances of a pro-life Republican presidential candidate—a pro-life Democratic presidential nominee, given the party’s platform, is virtually impossible—winning a majority of the Catholic vote in the near future?

Actually, very good. Although there is controversy over how accurate the large exit poll conducted by the Edison- Mitofsky consortium was this year and in previous elections, it is the best source of data we have for how Catholics and other subgroups of the American population actually voted, and it contains some reassuring data.

The exit poll bases itself on surveys of voters as they come out of their polling places and asks them how they had just voted, making it not a poll based on predictions of who will vote and how, but a sampling of those who did vote and what they said about their ballots. There are a lot of uncertainties in the exit poll. Are the people surveyed as they come from voting truly chosen at random? Do they always tell the truth? Do different kinds of surveyors tend to influence what the surveyed say? And what about the increasing proportion of voters, now at about one-third of the electorate, who vote early and must be contacted separately, and who may have preferences that differ from those of people who vote on Election Day?

Needless to say, Edison-Mitofsky tries to minimize all of these distortions and the others that can affect exit poll data, and there is no wide-scale alternative to it. Telephone surveys conducted shortly before the election supplement the exit poll and give us some more understanding of voters’ thinking, often in greater detail than the exit poll questions allow, but they are not in the same class as those talking to Americans who actually voted.


Switching from a pro-life candidate in one election to a pro-abortion candidate in the next does not necessarily indicate that a voting bloc is any less pro-life than before. Candidate charisma, effective door-to-door canvassing, media coverage, and other such factors can produce changes in voting patterns. More substantive factors can as well, such as national security concerns, questions about candidates’ characters or ability to keep their promises, and candidates’ experience.

However, as conventional wisdom has established, the economy tended to overwhelm other issues in this election. From Ohio to Florida, working-class Catholic pro-life voters losing their jobs or seeing family members lose theirs as pension plans and 401(k)s evaporated had serious resentments against the Republican Party. Coming on the heels of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other major controversies such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis and current recession were enough to prompt some prolife voters to switch sides. This was especially true of the vaunted Reagan Democrats, Catholic working- and middle-class voters in swing states who lean Democratic on economic issues but tend to vote Republican in presidential elections out of socially conservative convictions on life, marriage, prayer in school, and other similar issues.

Dissatisfaction among pro-life voters also played a role in this latest election. Republican nominee John McCain is less consistently pro-life than George W. Bush, and his mixed record on the issue may have prompted some prolife voters to discount voting for him on the basis of life. It certainly seemed that many pro-life voters simply stayed home on Election Day rather than vote for either major candidate or make a protest vote for a third-party nominee.

McCain told an interviewer in 1999 that he did not wish to see Roe v. Wade overturned, he opposed Bush’s compromise and supported federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research, and he angered many pro-life activists with his McCain-Feingold campaign fi nance reform bill that restricts pro-life (and other) groups’ political speech before elections, thus enhancing the infl uence of the solidly pro-abortion mainstream media. He also permanently turned off some pro-life evangelical voters, and maybe a few Catholics as well, by calling pro-life evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 presidential campaign. In fact, Bush’s famous former political adviser, Karl Rove, wrote after this election that more than four million Americans who attend church more than once a week who had voted in 2004 did not vote this past November. Given the high correlation between religious observance and pro-life voting patterns, it’s almost certain that had these voters come to the polls, they would have favored McCain by a wide margin. But McCain wasn’t enough to motivate them to come out.

So the American people did not necessarily become less pro-life than they were four years ago, and, in fact, the data show that they haven’t. Instead, some pro-life Catholic voters, particularly financially distressed ones fed up with the GOP, rearranged their priorities. Perhaps they were incorrect and even immoral to do so, but many voters lack philosophical consistency. That is why political parties can and do battle in each election cycle for swing voters, those who have not settled on one party as fitting them better than the other.

Ideologically, Americans continue to use labels for themselves in virtually unchanged proportions. In 2000, 18 percent said they were liberal, 36 percent conservative, and 38 percent moderate. In 2008, 21 percent said they were liberal, 38 percent conservative, and 36 percent moderate.

On abortion, the wording of different polls yields different results, but straightforward questioning continues to show a long-term pro-life trend. A Marist poll in October found that 60 percent of Americans, including 72 percent of Catholics, want to ban all abortions or to ban abortions except in cases of saving the life of the mother, rape, and incest, even though 50 percent of Americans call themselves “prochoice.” Only 17 percent of Catholics said all abortions should be banned. Only 8 percent of Americans favor allowing abortion for any reason at any stage in pregnancy, which is currently the law of the land and President-elect Barack Obama’s de facto position.

Despite Bush’s success in emphasizing social issues such as abortion, marriage, and judicial nominations, the McCain campaign downplayed them this cycle. Polls showed that few voters made social issues their priority this year. Over 50 percent picked the economy as their top issue, and the Iraq war was the next biggest concern followed by health care and terrorism. No other issue broke 10 percent.


The Edison-Mitofsky poll showed that this time around, the Democratic presidential nominee won 54 percent of the Catholic vote and the Republican nominee won 45 percent. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry, who called himself Catholic, won 47 percent of Catholics while Bush won 52 percent. There is a considerable difference when examining the non-Hispanic white Catholic vote and the Hispanic Catholic vote. Many religious, socially conservative minority voters such as Hispanics and blacks vote Democratic for other reasons. Despite the economic meltdown and the general distaste for the Republican Party across the nation, McCain actually won white Catholics, 52 percent to 47 percent, though he did not do as well as Bush had in that subgroup.

It was among the steadily growing subgroup of Hispanic Catholics that McCain lost big. Estimates vary, but up to one-third of American Catholics are now Latino, and about 50 percent under age 40 could be. Though the exit poll does not break out Hispanic Catholics as a subgroup, Hispanics overall voted 67 to-31 percent for Obama, a big shift from 2004, when Kerry won Hispanics by only 59 percent to 40 percent. However, the 2008 Hispanic vote is in line with recent voting history. Hispanics gave Al Gore 62 percent of their votes in 2000 and 72 percent to Bill Clinton in 1996.

Hispanic voting patterns are not necessarily shifting away from the GOP, and there is no evidence that their prolife views are lessening. Instead, Democrats are maintaining their 2-to-1 vote advantage among Hispanics and are benefi tting from its overall growth as a share of the electorate, as well as from the pro Democratic climate in this election. Many observers believe that economic concerns hit Hispanics particularly hard this year and that the GOP turned many off by sounding tough on immigration even though both Bush and McCain favor amnesty for illegal immigrants. Over 40 percent of Hispanic citizens are hawkish on illegal immigration, and the failure of Bush and the GOP Congress to do anything about it may have also alienated them.

As we all know, a large proportion of Americans who self-identify as Catholics do not believe in Church teaching and rarely attend Mass, and comparing the voting patterns of nominal Catholics to practicing Catholic yields significant results. Though there is some debate over the reliability of the data, the exit poll shows that those who attend Mass at least once a week voted for McCain over Obama 50 percent to 49 percent. Among all Americans who attend church weekly, McCain won 55 percent to 43 percent for Obama.


More outspoken on the need to vote pro-life than in previous recent elections, American Catholic bishops didn’t seem to have much effect. After all, if concerns about the economy and Republican incompetence trumped abortion, then the bishops’ infl uence on their flocks’ election patterns could not have been that great—right? Keep in mind that most bishops did not issue clear-cut statements on the necessity of prioritizing the pro-life issue, and at the same time the Obama campaign effectively exploited endorsements from Catholic intellectuals such as Pepperdine Law Professor Douglas Kmiec, who claimed that Obama’s policies would reduce the number of abortions and otherwise advance Catholic social goals more than Republican policies have.

Yet an analysis by Mark M. Gray in the November 23, 2008 Our Sunday Visitor argued that where bishops spoke out forcefully on behalf of unborn children, they seemed to have an effect. “At the state level, Obama outpaced his national gain of 7 percentage points over the Kerry vote [among Catholics] of 2004 in Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Vermont, and Delaware,” wrote Gray. “In six states Obama lost ground to Kerry’s Catholic vote totals of 2004. Catholics in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, and California were less likely than Catholics in 2004 to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. In both Missouri and Pennsylvania, Catholic bishops made statements, widely covered by the media, regarding the importance of life issues relative to other issues in the campaign. These statements potentially had an effect on the votes of Catholics in these states given Obama’s voting record and support for abortion.”

The trends in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Minnesota are much more important for presidential elections than those in the other states where the Democrat lost Catholic votes. Missouri is a bellwether swing state with demographics that approximate those of the United States as a whole, and as such almost always votes for the winner in national elections (though not this time around).

Trends among its Catholics may signify the potential for broader changes in the future. Pennsylvania is a large swing state battled over each cycle by both parties, and anything that might move it from one column to the other could have major national effects. Obama’s pro-choice running mate, Joe Biden, grew up in an Irish Catholic home in Scranton and made much of that fact in his campaign appearances. All large demographic groups in Obama’s home state of Illinois should have remained at least as enthusiastic about Obama as they had been about Kerry, and Illinois Catholics’ lack of enthusiasm mean weakness in Obama’s Catholic support. Minnesota is another Midwestern swing state.

Rather than national politics, local Democratic officials’ ineptitude after Katrina can explain Louisiana’s trend toward the GOP, which produced the election of the highly capable, pro-life Catholic Bobby Jindal as governor. California is hopelessly lost to the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.

The bishops also sent out mixed signals. For example, the media spread far and wide pictures and stories about the annual Al Smith dinner in New York City. There was Barack Obama as well as John McCain chatting with Cardinal Edward Egan on October 16, just weeks before the election. Surely many Catholics, who like most Americans do not pay close attention to politics, must have thought that a vote for Obama was acceptable?

All this means that in 2012 and future elections, social issues could again give an edge to a pro-life, pro-marriage candidate— especially since any continued economic malaise or national security concerns will probably cut against the incumbent Obama. Such a candidate would need to communicate his views effectively as well, and not wait until a few weeks before the election to start talking about them as McCain did.


Catholics, like other Americans, identify with the Republican Party less than they used to but are not flocking to the Democratic Party. CARA polls show that in 2004, 31 percent of Catholics called themselves Republican but only 23 percent did so in 2006. This year, 21 percent called themselves Republicans. Yet the proportion calling themselves Democrats did not increase between 2004 and 2008, showing that Catholics, like many other groups, are increasingly Independent.

Other demographic factors played a much bigger role than the small and easily reversibly shift among Catholic voters. Young voters have been trending Democratic during Bush’s presidency and they have given the party of abortion majorities of their votes since 2004. Only 21 percent of voters say they are liberal but 32 percent of those 18- 29 say they are. In 2008, Obama won 66 percent of those under 30 but only about half of those over 30, creating the biggest age split since exit polls began in 1972, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Part of the trend has been driven by America’s increasing racial diversity, since both today and historically, immigrant groups tend to vote Democrat and both of the United States’ two large racial minorities, blacks and Hispanics, are firmly in the Democratic camp. Only 62 percent of voters 18-29 are white while 18 percent are black and 14 percent Hispanic. In 2004, 68 percent were white. However, Obama won young white voters as well, 54 percent to 44 percent. Younger voters also tend to be more secular, with only 33 percent saying they go to church at least weekly as compared to 40 percent of all voters.

There were other setbacks for life other than the presidential and congressional elections. For example, California’s Proposition 4, a direct vote on an initiative requiring parental notification before a minor can have an abortion, went down to defeat 48 percent in favor and 52 percent against, although 60 percent of Catholics voted in favor of the initiative as did 59 percent of those who called themselves Protestant or Christian. But those who described themselves as having no religion voted 16 percent in favor and 84 percent against. The social conservatism of Demo craticleaning minority voters comes out in the exit poll on this initiative. Whites voted 46 percent to 54 percent against the initiative, while blacks voted 54 percent to 46 percent in favor and Hispanics, 55 percent to 45 percent in favor.

The Catholic vote will continue to be up for grabs in the next few election cycles. Though life and other social issues have worked in the past to pull Catholics into the GOP column, this election has demonstrated what had been proven before: economic issues can override life issues among enough Catholics to change the overall leaning of their voting bloc. White Catholics, including young white Catholics, who actually attend Mass and are involved with the Church will continue to be strongly pro-life in their voting habits.

The big question is the Hispanic voting subgroup. This is a bloc that swings substantially in the size of its majorities for Democrats. Hispanics continue to be overwhelmingly pro-life and promarriage but have other motivations for voting. Will the pro-life majority wing of the GOP be able to bring back those it lost to Obama, addressing Hispanics on not only life and marriage but also on economic, national security, and immigration issues?

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