WASHINGTON — Columnist E.J. Dionne is fond of saying, “there’s no such thing as ‘the Catholic vote’ and it’s going to decide the election.”
What Dionne’s seeming non sequitur hints at is that the Catholic vote is no longer the solid voting bloc it was in the past. However, though now it’s more amorphous, it does serve as an indicator of outcome.
For generations, Catholics were a firmly Democratic vote, with more than 50 percent sticking with the party’s presidential candidate. Then, beginning with President Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Catholics have often provided the vote on which the course of an election could turn for either party, with a majority voting for the winner, whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. More recently, Catholic voters have become less concretely definable by religious affiliation.
The bottom line: Most American Catholics do not vote primarily on the basis of issues that unite them as a faith group; however, the vote of the majority of Catholics does mirror the popular vote.
A panel of Catholic University of America professors of politics and religious studies Sept. 27 agreed that there’s really no monolithic Catholic vote the way there was in 1928 when Al Smith became the first Catholic to be a major party’s nominee, bringing the overwhelming majority of his co-religionists to the polls in supporting what was ultimately a losing bid.
Nor does the Catholic vote resemble the 1960 campaign, when John F. Kennedy felt compelled to distance himself from the pope to convince wary Protestants that he would not let the Vatican run the White House. That year the 78 percent of Catholics who voted for Kennedy helped him eke out his two-tenths of a percent winning margin over Nixon.
With a bit more than a month to the 2012 presidential election, both major campaigns are concentrating on the small sliver of the electorate in a handful of swing states that might still be “persuadable.” Several of those states have large Catholic populations and mid-September polls by Pew and Gallup tilt Catholics nationwide toward President Barack Obama.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in a Sept. 12-16 poll found 54 percent of Catholic voters nationwide support Obama, compared to 39 percent who support his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the 2008 election, 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama and 45 percent voted for Sen. John McCain.
But despite that, the professors said, the notion that a single issue or approach will bring a majority of Catholics to rally behind a candidate is an outdated myth.
At the program hosted by the university’s alumni relations office and its alumni association, Catholic University politics professor John White said, “I don’t think there is a Catholic vote, in that Catholics bring their religion to the forefront as they vote.”
William Dinges, a professor of theology and religious studies, said what might look like a “Catholic vote” may well be motivated by factors such as ethnic interests, gender or region of the country. “Religion doesn’t count as much as other variables,” he said.
Politics professor Steve Schneck, who also heads the university’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, said while there isn’t a monolithic vote of Catholics, “there are lots of smaller slices of Catholic voters” that he described as “gettable” by one party or another.
For example, he described about equal thirds of U.S. Catholics being in three groups: Latinos; “intentional” Catholics, who are active in their parishes and pay close attention to church teachings when they vote; and “cultural” Catholics, who are less frequent churchgoers but identify with it culturally. Of those, Schneck said, upward of 70 percent of the Latino Catholics likely will vote for Obama. Among the “intentional” Catholics, about 60 percent will vote for Romney, he said.
The “cultural” Catholics that Schneck described as “the real battleground between the parties.”
Schneck also is co-chair of the organization Catholics for Obama, but he and conference moderator Sheilah Kast cut off efforts by a few people in the audience to turn the session into a forum about his role with that organization.
Politics associate professor Matthew Green noted that voters across the board this election are primarily concerned about the economy. Among Latinos, how a candidate will address immigration is a key secondary concern.
Tracking polls since summer of how Catholics intend to vote did show a shift toward Romney not long after the U.S. bishops launched their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to rally opposition to federal policies that they say threaten religious rights. Support that had been slightly more in favor of Obama – 49-47 percent – dipped to 45-44 percent in August and early September before climbing back to the previous range, Green showed in results of Gallup polling.
Schneck said that among “intentional” Catholics, the religious rights concern is likely to contribute to their voting decision, but beyond that, he said, Catholic voters will make their electoral choices on a range of issues.