The Catholic Voter: A Secular Trinity (UPDATED)

Over the last fifty years, the Catholic vote has typically mirrored the overall vote in presidential elections. This was true in 2012 as well, with Catholics favoring Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a 50 to 48 percent margin. Since Catholics represent approximately 25 percent of the total voting population in presidential elections, the Catholic vote can be decisive, and it is important to understand the makeup of that vote.

Unlike many other religious, racial, and ethnic groups, the Catholic vote is not a block vote. As I point out in my book, Faith of Our Fathers: An American Catholic History, Catholics differ significantly in their political beliefs and actions. A preliminary analysis of the 2012 exit polling results suggests that the Catholic vote is in fact diverse and conflicting and falls into three distinct categories.

The first two categories have long been identified among Catholic voters. One category is comprised of Catholics who attend church regularly, defined to include those who attend Mass at least once a week. That group of Catholics voted in favor of the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, by about a twenty point margin.

By contrast, the second group of Catholics is composed of so-called “cultural Catholics.” This group represents Catholics who rarely or never go to Mass, and are seen in church only for baptisms, marriages, or funerals. This part of the Catholic vote strongly favored President Obama by a margin of twelve points or more, with the margin increasing in inverse proportion to church attendance.

The split between regular church-attending Catholics and cultural Catholics is neither surprising nor a new development. What has emerged from a preliminary analysis of the 2012 election, however, is the voting pattern of a third distinct group, the Latino Catholic.

Latinos, Catholic and non-Catholic, now represent 10 percent of the total national electorate. Many of these voters live in swing states, including Florida, where Latino registered voters increased by approximately 200,000 in the last four years. One in five Latino Catholics falls between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine.

While 67 percent of the Latino vote went to Obama in 2008, that percentage increased to 71 percent in 2012, and some 70 percent of Latino Catholic voters self identify as either Democratic or Lean Democratic. Latino Catholics go to church more often than white Catholics taken as a group. They are also more strongly pro-life and against same-sex marriage than white Catholics. On the other hand, Latino Catholics are more pro-government than white Catholics.

Political analysts are currently attempting to determine the factors which lead Latino Catholic voters to favor the Democratic party so strongly. Many, including Charles Krauthammer and Joshua Mercer, the cofounder of CatholicVote.org, believe that Latino Catholics, because of their strong beliefs in the traditional family and in their Catholic faith, would naturally vote for candidates who advocate positions which are consistent with Catholic teachings. They attribute the 2012 voting results among Latino Catholics to the perceptions of those voters that the Republican Party is anti-immigrant. Krauthammer suggests that Republicans could recapture a significant part of the Latino Catholic vote if the party were more friendly to immigration reform, including supporting the grant of amnesty to illegal Latino immigrants who have been in the country for some time.

By contrast, other commentators point to the historic reliance of Latino Catholic immigrants on the government to provide benefits. Since the Democratic Party is identified with preserving and/or increasing such benefits, this factor suggests that a Republican change of stance on immigration would not significantly affect the Latino Catholic vote. It also suggests that Mercer’s approach of reaching out to Latino Catholics to involve them more intimately in Catholic pro-life and pro-family movements would also have limited success in moving Latinos to vote for candidates simply because they support such positions.

Given the increasing number of Latino Catholic voters, their youth compared to the rest of the voting population, and their corresponding importance to both parties in future elections, it is important to gather and analyze further data beyond the preliminary results from exit polls and other analyses in 2012 in order to understand more fully what factors move this critical group of voters.

References:

Michelle Bauman, “Catholic vote results show need for teaching the faith,”  Catholic News Agency, November 8, 2012.

 John J. DiIulio, Jr., “Poll Vault,” America, November 26 – December 3, 2012, at 12.

Charles Krauthammer, “The way forward,”Washington Post, November 8, 2012.

Juan Williams, “Obama’s Daunting Democratic Message for the GOP,” Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2012.

Edward F. Mannino, Faith of Our Fathers: An American Catholic History (Wingspan Press 2012).

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