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Stop Talking About the ‘Catholic Vote’! It Doesn’t Exist

When the Obama administration announced last month that religiously-affiliated institutions would be required to provide health plans covering contraception, there was widespread talk that a wedge issue was emerging. Several prominent Catholic liberals were quick to point out that Obama would lose the Catholic vote and seriously damage his re-election prospects. But as Republican politicians gleefully piled on, the evidence for such a dire development—and indeed, for the continued existence of anything you could describe as a “Catholic vote”—has diminished almost daily.

Of course, the White House responded to the Catholic Bishops’ furor with a deft maneuver that changed the political dynamics of the issue, offering a compromise that allowed the cost of contraception coverage to be borne by insurance companies, not the religiously-affiliated institutions themselves. This step won immediate praise from the leadership of the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. But the split among Catholic elites simply reinforced the more fundamental reality: American Catholics are hardly monolithic, even on issues supposedly touching on the Church’s authority and teachings.

Polling of Americans on the contraception mandate controversy has produced significantly varying results, often depending on when the poll was taken and question wording and order. But no survey has shown a significant difference between Catholics and other voters on this issue. (John Sides found some evidence of a drop in approval ratings for Obama among highly-observant and conservative Catholics, but conceded that these are largely already Obama opponents.) Among the many polls, the most credible is perhaps a Democracy Corps survey that formulates the positions of the administration and of the Bishops in their own words. The results show that Catholics support the administration’s position by a 49-42 margin—barely distinguishable from the full pool of respondents, who support the administration’s position by a 49-43 margin.

This should come as no particular surprise to anyone familiar with the history of U.S. Catholic lay attitudes on issues where the Church hierarchy has taken strong positions. The most thorough recent research on public opinion involving abortion and same-sex marriage—issues where the Catholic Church has clear, unambiguous positions that are frequently communicated to the laity via channels ranging from papal encyclicals to the parish pulpit—comes from the Public Religion Research Institute, which did a major survey examining the views of Americans of differing confessional backgrounds in June of last year. At that time, 56 percent of all Americans and 54 percent of Catholics indicated they thought abortions should be legal in all or most circumstances. Only 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants, however, support legalized abortion—another indication that the anti-choice base in American politics is now more Protestant than Catholic.

To be sure, the same survey shows slightly stronger personal disapproval of abortion on moral grounds among Catholics than among the population as a whole. That attitude, however, is heavily concentrated among Latino Catholics. Forty-two percent of white Catholics consider abortion “morally acceptable,” compared to 40 percent of all Americans, while only 17% of Latino Catholics say the same. There is hardly a consenus Catholic position, even on personal attitudes towards abortion.

On same-sex marriage, again, Catholics are more likely to agree with other Americans than with their own leadership. An October 2010 Pew survey showed 46 percent of Catholics favoring legalization of same-sex marriage, as compared to 42 percent of all Americans. The hardcore resistance to gay marriage, on the other hand, is among white evangelicals (who oppose it by a 20-74 margin) and to some extent black Protestants (who oppose it by a 28-62 margin).

Conservatives often argue that support for the hierarchy’s positions is much higher among “real Catholics”—meaning those who attend Mass weekly. That’s true, but it’s not a phenomenon particular to Catholics. According to the PRRI survey, for example, support for legalized abortion varies inversely according to frequency of worship service attendance among evangelical and mainline Protestants, as well as among Catholics. Moreover, Catholics who disagree with the Church’s position on hot-button issues do not seem to be suffering from any misinformation about Church teachings (72 percent of white Catholics say they’ve heard about abortion from the pulpit) or from a bad conscience about their disagreements. Again according to PRRI, 68 percent of Catholics think you can still be a “good Catholic” while disagreeing with Church teachings on abortion, and 74 percent say the same about same-sex marriage.

The more you look at the numbers, the idea that there is some identifiable Catholic vote in America, ready to be mobilized, begins to fade towards irrelevance. In the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections, Catholics voted within a couple of percentage points of the electorate as a whole. It’s notable that both the Democratic vice president and the Republican Speaker of the House are Catholics—and that few Americans are likely aware of that fact.

This was not always the case, of course. From the days of Andrew Jackson to JFK, Catholic voters were considered a mainstay of the Democratic Party coalition. Irish and German Catholics were at home in the conservative Democratic party of the nineteenth century, and were supplemented by southern Europeans as the New Deal Coalition developed in the twentieth. While the Catholic attachment to the Democratic Party has persisted to a steadily diminishing extent in state and local elections, the disproportionate pro-Democratic “Catholic vote” at the presidential level abruptly ended in 1972 and has never returned.

To a large extent, that shift has simply reflected the broader ideological polarization of the two parties, which demolished traditional ethnic loyalties. Moreover, the upward mobility and suburbanization of previously urban white Catholics communities has naturally made them more susceptible to Republican economic and cultural appeals, a trend that among Catholics as a whole has been partially offset by the influx of Democratic-leaning Hispanics.  

The idea that Catholics no longer behave self-consciously as “Catholics” on hot-button issues reflects the broader reality that they have become hard to distinguish from other Americans in their political behavior. And so whatever happens between the White House and the Bishops, it’s not likely to change the reality that the “Catholic vote” looks just like America. 

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.