October 11, 2012

The Catholic “Swing” Vote

Catholics are often identified as a major “swing” voting group in American politics.1 In recent presidential elections Catholics have made up roughly a quarter of the electorate, and, indeed, they have been closely divided between the two parties.

But a new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that most subgroups of American Catholics have reliably voted either Republican or Democratic. White Catholics who identify themselves as politically conservative have consistently voted for Republican candidates in recent elections. And white Catholics who identify themselves as political liberals have consistently voted for Democrats, as have Hispanic Catholics and other Catholic minorities.

The only group of Catholics that has been divided in recent elections is white Catholics who identify as moderates; they were closely divided in both 2000 and 2004 before swinging strongly in the Democratic direction in 2008. So far in 2012, there has been little drop-off in support for the Democrats among this group. In Pew Research Center polling conducted so far this year, about half of white Catholic moderates identify themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party (51%), while 39% prefer the GOP.

White Catholic moderates constituted the single largest subgroup of Catholic voters in the 2008 presidential election, accounting for one-third of Catholic voters (32%). White Catholic conservatives accounted for 25% of Catholic voters  in 2008. Hispanic Catholics made up one-fifth of the Catholic electorate in 2008, while white Catholic liberals and other (non-Hispanic) minority Catholics each accounted for roughly one-tenth of the Catholic vote.

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The share of the Catholic vote made up of white moderates has been declining over the past decade. In the 2000 election, white moderates accounted for 42% of all Catholic voters, compared with 32% in the 2008 election. Over this period, both white conservatives and Hispanics have increased their share of the Catholic electorate.

White Catholic moderates generally take liberal positions on social issues but hold conservative views on the role and size of government. These cross pressures may help explain why in recent elections the shifts in voting among white Catholic moderates have been greater than among Catholics as a whole.

Contours of the Catholic Vote

When considered as a whole, Catholic voters have been closely divided in recent presidential elections. In 2000, for instance, 50% of Catholics voted for Democrat Al Gore, while 47% supported Republican George W. Bush. In 2004, 52% of Catholics backed Bush while 47% voted for Democrat John Kerry. In 2008, Catholics backed Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain by a 54%-45% margin.

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But while Catholics as a whole have been narrowly divided in recent elections, there are clearly identifiable Catholic subgroups that vote as relatively cohesive blocs. White Catholics who describe themselves as political conservatives, for instance, are a reliably Republican constituency; roughly eight-in-ten or more white Catholic conservatives have voted for the Republican candidate in each of the last three presidential elections.

At the other end of the spectrum, white Catholics who describe themselves as politically liberal have been strongly Democratic, casting upwards of three-quarters of their votes for the Democratic candidate in the three most recent elections. Most minority Catholics also have voted for Democratic candidates in presidential elections in recent years.

The only subgroup of Catholics that has been narrowly divided in recent elections is white Catholics who describe their political ideology as moderate. White Catholic moderates were closely divided in both 2000 (50% voted for Bush, 47% for Gore) and 2004 (52% for Bush, 47% for Kerry) before swinging strongly in the Democratic direction in 2008 (58% supported Obama, 41% McCain), according to exit polls conducted by a consortium of media organizations. While white Catholic moderates favored the Republican over the Democrat by 5 points in 2004, they supported the Democrat over the Republican by 17 points in 2008, a swing of 22 percentage points.

These patterns have persisted in polling conducted so far in 2012; neither Obama nor his Republican challenger Mitt Romney has established a consistent lead among Catholic voters as a whole. But in aggregated Pew Research Center polling conducted from January through early October 2012, white Catholic conservatives have been firmly in the Romney camp, while white Catholic liberals, Hispanics and other minority Catholics have been firmly behind Obama. Compared with other Catholic subgroups, white Catholic moderates have been more evenly split, though they have expressed more support for Obama than for Romney.2

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Size of the Catholic Electorate

Catholics have accounted for roughly one-quarter of the overall U.S. electorate in each of the last three presidential elections. In Pew Research Center polling thus far in 2012, 22% of registered voters have identified themselves as Catholics.3

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White Catholic moderates are a large group, accounting for 32% of the Catholic vote in 2008 and 8% of voters overall. But their share of the Catholic vote has been shrinking (from 42% in 2000 to 32% in 2008). This mirrors a trend among the electorate as a whole: white moderates’ share of the general electorate declined from 39% in 2000 to 33% in 2004 and 31% in 2008.

Meanwhile, white Catholic conservatives accounted for about one-quarter of the Catholic vote (25%) in 2008 and 7% of voters overall. Whereas white Catholic conservative voters were outnumbered by white Catholic moderates in 2000 by a two-to-one margin, the difference in the size of these groups was much smaller by 2008.

Hispanic Catholics constituted 21% of the Catholic electorate in 2008 and 5% of the electorate as a whole. White Catholic liberals and other (non-Hispanic) minority Catholics each accounted for roughly one-tenth of the 2008 Catholic vote (11% and 8%, respectively).

Partisanship and Political Issues

In terms of their partisanship, white Catholic conservatives are heavily Republican, while white Catholic liberals, Hispanics and other minority Catholics are heavily Democratic. By comparison, white Catholic moderates are more evenly divided, though the balance of opinion among this group favors the Democrats.

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White Catholic moderates are closer to Catholic liberals than to Catholic conservatives when it comes to social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. For example, two-thirds of white Catholic moderates (65%) support same-sex marriage, as do three-quarters of white Catholic liberals (77%). Hispanic Catholics also express more support than opposition to same-sex marriage (55% vs. 37%). By contrast, a strong majority of white Catholic conservatives (63%) oppose same-sex marriage.

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Views on abortion follow a similar pattern. Six-in-ten white Catholic moderates say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white Catholic liberals. By contrast, 57% of white Catholic conservatives say that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Hispanic Catholics are divided on the issue, with 50% saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases and 45% saying it should be illegal in most or all circumstances.

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While most white Catholic moderates take liberal positions on same-sex marriage and abortion, they mostly take a conservative view when asked about the role of government. More than six-in-ten white Catholic moderates (63%) say they prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services over a bigger government that provides more services. Three-quarters of white Catholic conservatives express the same view. Among white Catholic liberals and Hispanic Catholics, however, roughly six-in-ten say they prefer a bigger government that provides more services.

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Demographic and Religious Characteristics of Catholic Voter Groups

Roughly one-in-ten white Catholic moderates are under age 30 (11%), while one-in-five are 65 or older (22%). Four-in-ten white Catholic moderates are college graduates (42%). Most white moderate Catholics live in the East (38%) or Midwest (30%); 18% reside in the South, and 14% live in the West.

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Hispanic Catholics are substantially younger than the white Catholic voter subgroups. Hispanic Catholics also have less education on average than white Catholics and are more likely to reside in the West.

Roughly four-in-ten white Catholic moderates say they attend religious services at least once a week (38%). Among Hispanic Catholics, 45% say they attend Mass weekly, as do 39% of other minority Catholics. Among white Catholic liberals, three-in-ten say they attend religious services regularly (29%). White Catholic conservatives report attending Mass most often, with 52% saying they attend at least once a week.

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Footnotes:

1 See, for example, The New York Times, “The Power of Political Communion,” Sept. 15, 2012, and Religion News Service, Will Biden-Ryan debate be a ‘Catholic smackdown’?” Oct. 10, 2012. (return to text)

2 Since several of the Catholic voter subgroups account for only a small percentage of the overall electorate, aggregating results from multiple polls is the only way to analyze their preferences. The results presented here reflect polling conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press from January through early October 2012. These results do NOT reflect the most recent estimates of Catholics’ presidential preferences; for information on religion and the current state of the 2012 presidential race, see “Trends in Voter Preferences Among Religious Groups.” (return to text)

3 While Catholics constitute a smaller proportion of registered voters in 2012 Pew Research Center surveys than of voters in recent exit polls, it remains to be seen whether Catholics will make up a smaller portion of the electorate in 2012 than in previous years.(return to text)

Photo credit: © Jay Paul/USA Today/RNS