Is there a Catholic vote? To say “Yes,” we need to see a significant number of Catholics vote for one party. If Catholic voter preferences remain more or less 50-50, it means that Catholics are almost as likely to vote on way as to vote the other. Most pundits wait until the split is at least 60-40 before talking about a Catholic vote, (or a Jewish vote or an African-American vote). A 20% difference is the threshold for significance.
Are there Catholic issues? Does appeal to specific policies attract (or repel) 60% or more of the voting group? For Catholics, the election of JFK in 1960 as president was clearly an identity thing – he was one of us. Thus, there was a Catholic vote in 1960. However, when John Kerry ran in 2004, most Catholics did not vote for him. It may be that voting on the basis of identification is a one-time, first-time phenomenon.
Historically, a nationwide Catholic vote emerged from the ashes of the anti-Catholic rejection of Al Smith in 1928. Smith and Catholics had been seen as tied only to big-city machine politics, but the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt helped cement Catholics as a solidly Democratic voting group, with representatives in high places. Catholics voted for the Democratic Party because it upheld social justice church teachings on labor union rights, social security and relief for the unemployed. Although there were some complaints (e.g. Fr. Coughlin) about Communist influences, it was not until the 1950s Cold War that Catholics began to vote for Republicans like Eisenhower, usually on grounds of anti-Communism. This trend intensified with Ronald Reagan.
Those skeptical about a Catholic vote argue that Catholic drift towards the Republican Party was caused by rising economic status and living in the suburbs. Simultaneously, the II Vatican Council made sweeping changes, asking us to break away from a mental ghetto. According to this theory, the influence on Catholic voting patterns came principally from geography, class interest, and mainstream culture. In the 1980s, we witnessed the rise of so-called “Reagan Democrats.” They chose Republicans who promised to protect a hard-earned economic status and reacted against a Democratic Party that seemingly heaped importance upon racial minorities and urban problems at the expense of middle-class white persons.
I want to focus here only on voting patterns, not my preferences. It is clear that Republican strategists seized upon Catholic upward mobility by choosing to reshape their party as a defender of middle-class white people against liberal politicians who were said to favor Affirmative Action, welfare and huge spending for the urban poor and minority racial groups. The GOP also assumed the mantle of defender of the unborn and traditional morality, while Democratic presidential candidates seemed to be both secular and elitist.
The result? By 2004, Catholic voters preferred Republican George W. Bush over Catholic John Kerry, 52% to 48%. While this did not meet the threshold of 60-40 to deliver a Catholic vote to the Republicans, it did mean that there was no longer a Catholic vote for Democrats.
Curiously, however, there WAS a Catholic vote in 2004 among Latinos and Latinas. Just the opposite of Latino Protestants — who voted with nearly 60% for Republican Bush — about 64% of Latino Catholics voted for Democrat Kerry. In fact, after African-Americans and Jews, Latino Catholics represented the most faithful of Democratic voting groups. In a valuable analysis of 2004 data provided by Prof. Frank Ridzi of Le Moyne College, the Latino Catholics polled said they voted for the Democratic Kerry on account of his support of social justice issues like immigration rights, health care and opposition to the Iraq War. Latino Protestants, on the other hand, made abortion their main reason for voting Republican.
Writing before the results of the 2008 election are known, let alone analyzed, it is unclear as to whether or not there was a Catholic vote in this year’s presidential contest. I will be interested to see if in 2008 most Catholics followed the Latino trend towards Democrats on issues of social justice. Such a vote would suggest that Catholic America wants Washington to address more pro-life issues than abortion alone. Que será, será.