Catholics Beginning to Move Away from the Democratic Party

It is likely that Catholics—especially those who attend weekly Mass—will play a more important role than ever in the upcoming elections.

In a shift that may have consequences for the 2014 elections—and beyond—the Pew Religion and Public Life Project reported late last month that Catholics are continuing to trend toward the Republican Party. Fifty-three percent of white Catholics now identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, while only 39 percent of them identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. This is a significant shift from 2008, when Pew found that 41 percent of white, Catholic registered voters identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party, and in 2011, when 49 percent did.

Individual Catholics—including the clergy—are becoming more vocal in their concerns about the Democratic Party, which many perceive as being dismissive of Catholic concerns about life issues. Last year, Most Rev. Thomas Tobin, bishop of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, revealed that although he had been a registered Democrat since 1969, he decided to switch his voting registration to the Republican Party: “I just said I can’t be associated structurally with that group, in terms of abortion and NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and the same-sex marriage agenda and the cultural destruction I saw going on. I just couldn’t do it anymore…. The a-ha moment for me was the 2012 Democratic National Convention…. It was just awful.”

It is likely that Catholics—especially those who attend weekly Mass—will play a more important role than ever in the upcoming elections. While Republicans lost among Catholics in 2008 by 13 points, the Democratic advantage became a seven-point Republican advantage by the end of 2011. Republicans now hold a significant lead among Catholics in general. And many of these Catholics are more motivated than ever to get out to the polls. According to the September 2014 Pew study, 79 percent of all Catholic respondents revealed that they will “definitely vote” in the upcoming elections. This is up 11 percentage points from September 2010. In fact, Catholics are more motivated to vote than any other religious group except white Evangelicals, who also indicate strong support for the Republican Party. 

Latinos—especially Catholic Latinos—still trend toward the Democratic Party. In the 2012 elections, Latino Catholics were much more supportive of President Obama than were Latino Evangelicals. In a telephone survey conducted in 2012, Latino registered voters supported Obama over Romney by more than three-to-one (69 percent vs 21 percent). The Pew Foundation concluded that “Hispanic Catholics who are registered to vote look very much like the Hispanic population overall, with nearly three-quarters supporting Obama (73 percent) and about one-in-five supporting Romney (19 percent).” In 2012, white non-Hispanic Catholics were much more evenly divided, with 47 percent in favor of Obama and 46 percent in favor of Romney in that same 2012 polling period.

Hispanic Evangelical Protestants are more narrowly divided, with half supporting Obama and about four-in-ten supporting Romney in 2012. The Pew Foundation found that in 2012 “about seven-in-ten Latino Catholic registered voters identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party (71 percent).”

It is difficult to predict how Hispanic Catholics will vote in the 2014 election. In a 2014 study, Pew found that although most Hispanics in the United States continue to belong to the Catholic Church, nearly one-in-four Hispanic adults (24 percent) are now former Catholics according to a major nationwide survey of more than 5,000 Hispanics. Younger Hispanics are even less likely to be Catholic. In the 18-29-year-old range, only 45 percent of Hispanics living in the United States are Catholic. 

Still, Pew also concludes that Hispanics tend to be more conservative than the general public in their views on abortion. While 54 percent of US adults say that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, just four-in-ten Hispanics take this position. While most Latino Evangelical Protestants (70 percent) say that abortion should be illegal, only 54 percent of Latino Catholics say that abortion should be illegal. For Hispanic Evangelical Protestants, 64 percent say that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances. Hispanic Catholics are more inclined than white Catholics to say that abortion should be illegal (54 percent vs 44 percent). In this, they are closer to the Republican Party pro-life platform.

Hispanic Catholics are also more likely to favor “big government”—and this continues to support the Democratic Party platform. In last month’s Pew survey, 72 percent of Hispanic Catholics favored a larger government, compared with only 33 percent of white Catholics. Only 25 percent of Hispanic Catholics want a smaller government, with fewer services, while 61 percent of white Catholics prefer a smaller government.

Not surprisingly, Hispanic Evangelical Protestants are much more supportive than Hispanic Catholics of having their church leaders publicly express their views on social and political issues. Only one-third of all Hispanic Evangelical Protestants say church leaders should “keep out of political matters.” By contrast, 41 percent of Hispanic Catholics say that church leaders should keep out of political matters.

On same-sex marriage, Latinos—including Catholics—have become more supportive of allowing same-sex couples to marry. Forty-nine percent of Hispanics favor same-sex marriage in the Pew 2014 study—similar to the US public as a whole. Hispanic Evangelical Protestants are much more likely to oppose same-sex marriage (66 percent opposed, 19 percent in favor).

In an attempt to shift the white Catholic vote back to the Democratic Party, progressive faith-based groups like Faithful America, Catholics for Choice, and Catholics United—flush with foundation money from abortion supporters at the Soros Foundation, and same-sex marriage advocates like the Gill Foundation and the Arcus Foundation—are now attempting to convince Catholics that the Democratic Party best represents their interests. Catholic San Francisco, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, has reported that these philanthropists have funded the most recent attacks on San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.  On June 19, when Archbishop Cordileone announced his plans to speak in favor of traditional marriage at the  National Organization for Marriage’s march on the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, Faithful America—a 501c (3) organization funded by George Soros’ Open Society, Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation and the Gill Foundation—spearheaded a petition drive on Facebook and other social media decrying what they described as Archbishop Cordileone’s “lending the Church’s authority to the vitriol and hatred—and undermining Pope Francis’ call for a more compassionate Church.”  

It is unlikely that spending money to attack Church leaders will help, as faithful Catholics understand that Catholic teachings on marriage cannot be changed through a marketing campaign. A Pew report released last month indicated that support for same-sex marriage has actually declined—dropping below 50 percent from a high of 54 percent last February.  

It is more likely that pro-life issues are driving the departure from the Democratic Party. Millennial Catholics—those born after 1981—are more pro-life than their predecessors, and many of them are motivated to vote. Although these young Catholics are also more likely to support access to marriage for same-sex couples, their support for restrictions on abortion may trump the same-sex marriage issue.

A February 2012 study by the Pew Foundation revealed that among white Catholics under age 30, support for the GOP has increased from 41 percent in 2008 to 54 percent in 2011. White Evangelicals under age 30 are even more heavily Republican than those Evangelicals over 30 (82 percent vs. 69 percent). These young, faith-based voters are the future, and it would seem that many of them are coming to believe that a party that has elevated as its most important increasing access to abortion—including late-term abortion, and tax-payer funded abortion in the Affordable Care Act—does not represent their views.


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About Anne Hendershott 86 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).