Five Things We Know About the Catholic Vote
By Deal W. Hudson
The polling results released by the New York Times last week do not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the recent history of the Catholic vote.
The NYTs poll found that the percentage of self-identified Catholics favoring GOP candidates has risen 34% since the 2008 election.
In fact, Catholic voters moved the most toward the GOP among all the groups being polled, including women, college graduates, independents, West region, 30-44 year olds, suburbanites, and families with under a $50,000 income.
Catholics are a powerful swing vote in American politics, but that dynamism is easily misunderstood.
Between 1999 and 2004, as Chair of Catholic Outreach at the RNC, I led an effort that successfully helped to move 15% of self-identified Catholic voters from supporting the Democratic presidential candidate to voting for the Republican, in this case, George W. Bush. (In 1996, Dole won 37% of Catholics compared to 52% of Catholics who voted for Bush in 2004.)
This effort began years earlier when I commissioned a comprehensive study of the Catholic vote and new polling that was published between November 1998 and January 2002 in Crisis Magazine.
The basic insights gleaned from the first stages of this research are what we used to guide our Bush Catholic outreach. Our experience in subsequent elections, along with further research, has sharpened our analysis, but the basic insights have been repeatedly corroborated.
Here are the five things we know about the Catholic vote:
1. Candidates and parties should focus on the religiously active Catholic voters, not those who are only self-identified. Those Catholics who attend Mass regularly are the voters most likely to be motivated by their Catholic values and worldview. Without this distinction, the Catholic vote will not appear much different from the general electorate. When Jody Bottum, former editor of First Things, argues there is no Catholic vote that’s because he ignores this basic distinction.
2. Active Catholic voters care about social issues and what appears to them the steady moral decline of our nation. This is true, regardless of the state of the economy. Candidates who want to win Catholic voters should not dismiss social issues impacting the family, raising children, and education.
3. Catholics want candidates to address social and moral issues but in a compassionate way. Catholic voters don’t respond well to a tone of angry moral indignation or denunciation.
4. Catholics are pro-military, patriotic, and they view the United States as possessing a unique historical role. Thus, Catholic voters are extremely sensitive to gestures, symbolic or otherwise, that show disrespect to our country or its military. Two reasons for this are the immigrant background of many Catholic families and the fact that Catholics have served in disproportionate numbers in the military since World War II.
5. Catholics care about the disadvantaged, such as those living in poverty, those children who receive substandard nutrition and education, or the elderly who can no longer take care of themselves.
These five principles explain why Catholic voters, by 53% to 46%, supported the Democrats and their leader, President Obama, in the 2008 election and why they have moved away so dramatically.
Catholics responded to his positive message about hope and change and applauded his concern for those in need. All the symbolism surrounding the Obama candidacy stood in sharp relief from a Republican president successfully demonized by the media and a party too marred by financial scandal.
That Obama shared the far Left’s critical attitude toward America’s influence in the world, their scorn towards the military, their support for federally funded abortion, and their confidence in government-led social engineering went unseen and unheard by the voters, including many Catholics.
But some Catholics, namely most Mass-attending Catholics, did reject Obama, by 45% to a 54% margin. The gap between active and inactive Catholic voters for Obama betrays the president’s vulnerability on issues and attitudes important to Catholics.
The past two years have removed the mask — the media band has stopped playing quite so loudly – and Catholic voters are ready to repent.