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.
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.
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
Contours of the
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%
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.
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.
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.
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
the Catholic Electorate
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
Religious Characteristics of Catholic Voter Groups
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.
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.
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.
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