The Myth of “The Catholic Vote”

A good deal of the excitement over the recent contraception coverage mandate has resulted from the hopes of Republicans, and the fears of some Catholic liberals, that the controversy could prove to be a “wedge issue” that would drive significant numbers of Catholic voters into the GOP column in November.

The assumption behind such scenarios, of course, is that there is a self-conscious “Catholic vote” that operates independently of the rest of the electorate, and that can be moved by the pronouncements of Catholic religious leaders.

My latest column for The New Republic examines this assumption, and finds it uncompelling in several respects: Catholic voters are remarkably similar to all voters in their partisan inclinations; they do not have any overall inclination to follow the Church hierarchy on hot-button cultural issues; and in fact, they are not responding differently from other Americans to the contraception coverage mandate controversy. “The Catholic Vote” looks just like America.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal‘s Craig Gilbert addressed the same issue recently and reached the same conclusion. Yes, the sizable “Catholic vote” in Wisconsin is slightly more Republican than the electorate at large, but that’s because it is overwhelmingly white (compared to the Catholic population nationally with its large and growing Latino minority). As Gilbert shows, white Catholic voters break down much as white voters generally do in the major battleground states.

Still another writer scoffing at the idea of some semi-monolithic “Catholic vote” recently was Stephen S. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, in an article for CNN:

[T]he idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance.

Schneck notes, in fact, that Catholic voters’ willingness to take orders from religious leaders on moral issues is steadily declining:

88% of Catholics in the [CNN] poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.

Today’s Catholics are picky and even suspicious about political signals from the institutional church.

Schneck does observe there are subcultures of Catholic voters who are worth paying distinctive attention to: most obviously, Latino Catholics, but also “intentional Catholics” more likely to actively embrace Church teachings, and “cultural Catholics” who tend to be somewhat more culturally conservative than other voters, but also more “populist” on economic issues.

But the days when–to cite one leading example–there was a vast gulf in the political affiliations of German Catholics and Protestants of relatively similar circumstances are long gone. Voters who happen to be Catholic are affected by the same sorts of cross-currents affecting other voters–but not so much by their distinctive religious tradition.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.