4th Oct 2012

The Catholic Voter Will Determine the Next President 

by Robert P. Lockwood

The national Catholic newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor, had a circulation of well over a million in 1960 when Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency. The founder of Our Sunday Visitor, Bishop John F. Noll, had long contended that there was no distinct Catholic vote — Catholics voted just like any other Americans. There was no massive Catholic vote controlled by the hierarchy in the way that anti-Catholic literature liked to portray.

To prove his point, each national election the Catholic newsweekly conducted a straw vote among its readers and released the results the Sunday before the election. In every election going back to the 1940s, that OSV straw vote reflected quite closely the outcome of the national election.

That held until 1960, when Kennedy won a majority of OSV readers with 78 percent of the straw vote, which reflected about what the pollsters found in gauging the Catholic vote after the election.

A little side note: Our Sunday Visitor never released the results of that straw vote. When the tabulation was in and OSV editor-in-chief Msgr. Joseph Crowley saw the results, he called Bobby Kennedy to ask him what to do. Kennedy begged him not to report the results, fearing a backlash among Protestant voters that could swing the election to Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Msgr. Crowley agreed. Our Sunday Visitor instead ran a little box on the Sunday before the election noting that since religion had become an unfortunate issue in the election, the newspaper refrained from publishing any results that could re-inject religion into the campaign. (As it turned out, in that election year the Catholic vote would differ significantly from the 49.7 percent of the popular vote Kennedy would carry nationally in his slim victory over Richard Nixon.)

The years can make a difference. When Catholic John Kerry ran for president in 2004 against George Bush, he could barely garner 50 percent of the Catholic vote.

John Kerry fell short with his fellow Catholics, and most pollsters believed that was why he lost the election. For a Democrat to win the White House, the math is very simple: He or she has to pick up at least 53 percent of the Catholic vote. That is why both Democrat and Republican pollsters consider Catholics one of the last “swing” voting blocks and are paying much more attention to them.

To the pollsters, African American and Jewish voters, for example, are primarily and consistently Democratic voters. White Protestant church-goers — particularly Baptists and Evangelicals — are primarily Republican. Either party can do just about anything and still count on garnering those respective majorities.

But Catholics are not in anyone’s camp, at least not consistently so on a national level in recent elections. They voted for Ronald Reagan twice, defining what came to be called “Reagan Democrats”; they then swung back to the Democrats with Bill Clinton; and back again to the Republicans with George W. Bush. They voted to put Barack Obama in the White House when they gave him 53 percent of their vote to 47 percent for John McCain in 2008.

But here’s an interesting fact that pollsters are just catching up with this year. Within that Catholic swing vote, you can just about pinpoint where that swing might come from. That’s because in recent years, pollsters have begun to delineate two kinds of Catholic voters — practicing Catholics and non-practicing Catholics.

Roughly 65 percent of the Catholic vote nationwide is made up of either occasional or non-practicing Catholics who still identify themselves as Catholic, while 35 percent of the Catholic vote — or about nine percent of the overall electorate — are practicing Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly.

When John F. Kennedy was running for president, pollsters would not think of differentiating among practicing and non-practicing Catholics since the weekly Mass attendance rates stood at roughly 77 percent. That compares to roughly 35 percent practicing Catholics today. And that can be a generous percentage, depending on where those Catholics live.

As George J. Marlin argues in his excellent book The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact (St. Augustine’s Press, Revised Edition, 2006), Catholics have long been a definable voting block in America. Like any group of voters, Catholics historically cast their ballots in diverse ways as determined by their perceived best interests. They voted based on where they lived and what issues were going on locally. They only tended to vote as a block if they believed they were under siege.

In 2004, non-practicing Catholics gave Kerry a slight edge over Bush, 50 percent to 49 percent. But practicing Catholics swung heavily to Bush, 56 percent to 43 percent. This gave Bush an overall Catholic majority of 53 percent to 46 percent. Of even greater significance, these practicing Catholic voters provide the real swing vote in states that will be closely watched in November — Ohio and Michigan, for example.

In 2000, Democrat Al Gore carried the overall Catholic vote 50 to 46 percent over Bush — but, again, in a razor-thin election this was not enough. Without hitting that 53 percent threshold, he couldn’t carry the election in the electoral college. Gore lost the practicing Catholic vote by roughly 52 percent to 47 percent.

Catholics obviously have a big impact in the overall election, representing close to 24 percent of the electorate. But the conventional political wisdom has been that in recent years Catholic voters tend to vote based more as a reflection of the larger group within which they live and work. Their voting patterns reflect their education, economic class and region, not their Catholic religion.

But what pollsters are discovering now is that this is far less true of practicing Catholics. They are more likely to vote based on a uniquely quantifiable Catholic identity that pollsters can delineate. As a result, pollsters are paying more and more attention to them because they “weight” the Catholic vote and, in fact, often supply that overall and unique “swing” that the pollsters are looking for.

In 2008, McCain garnered approximately 53 percent of the practicing Catholic vote. That wasn’t enough to push him over the top. President Obama won enough of the practicing Catholic vote — 47 percent — to maintain a sizeable enough overall Catholic vote to win the election. But if McCain had managed the same percentage of the practicing Catholic voter in 2008 that George Bush had won in 2004, it would have been enough to put him over the top.

How will Catholics vote this year? We just simply don’t know yet where that “swing” vote is going. But keep your eye on it because that will pick the winner. If Obama can get 53 percent or more of the Catholic vote overall, he will most assuredly win the election. The converse also is true — without 53 percent of the Catholic vote, he will most assuredly lose.

The key to reaching that victory plateau is not in the non-practicing Catholic vote, but in garnering enough of the practicing Catholics to reach that 53 percent overall.

It’s that nine percent of the electorate — the practicing Catholic — who represent the last serious swing vote, the vote that will determine the outcome of the 2012 election.

Robert P. Lockwood is director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and a former president of Our Sunday Visitor.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)