There Is No ‘Catholic Vote.’ And Yet, It Matters

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

June 18, 2000

You’ll hear about the Catholic vote all year. You’ll hear about it because Catholics are big, the largest single religious denomination in America. They’re especially big in the large industrial states Al Gore and George W. Bush have targeted as key to victory: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. And Catholics tend to vote for the winner.

So if Democrats have anything to do with it, you’ll hear again about Bush’s visit to that now famously anti-Catholic university named after Bob Jones. And if you pay close attention, you’ll notice how often Bush sprinkles his speeches with quotations from Pope John Paul II. And you’ll see more stories like “Courting the Catholic Vote” in the Atlanta Constitution last month and a recent New Republic piece on “the Catholic teachings of George W.”

Why all this pontificating? There is no “Catholic vote” in the sense of a bloc that moves predictably toward one party or the other. Despite a certain convergence of views among Catholics—a concern for social justice, a collective dedication to the value of the family—Catholics haven’t voted as a bloc since the early 1960s, when they solidly backed America’s one and only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Catholics’ loyalties are unpredictable and in flux. A telling statistic: The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Bush and Gore running dead even among white Catholics, at 47 percent each.

“Catholics may be the most maddening electoral group in American politics,” says Republican pollster Steven Wagner, “the demographic bloc that drives pollsters, pundits and politicians of all stripes to distraction.” Notre Dame political scientist David Leege—with whom Wagner and I were panelists at a conference on “American Catholics in the Public Square” in Annapolis this month—agrees. “Despite a veritable cottage industry of scholars who have studied religion and politics among American Catholics, a single theory that explains the dynamics of Catholic political behavior has eluded their grasp.”

But politicians and scholars alike know it’s important to figure it out. Catholics are the ultimate swing vote. Rooted in the immigrant, ethnic, urban culture, Catholics have become increasingly upscale and suburban. They embody the classic American progression: from outsider to insider, from striver to achiever, from union hall to country club. On the way, they have become more sympathetic to the GOP. Republicans would not control Congress—and would not have a chance in presidential elections—if they hadn’t succeeded in roughly doubling the 20-or-so percent share of the Catholic vote they got in JFK’s election.

Upward mobility hasn’t had the same effect on Jews and African Americans—they defy their class positions; Catholics merely resist theirs. Nearly three decades ago, Milton Himmelfarb, the thoughtful and puckish scholar of American Judaism, wrote that “Jews have the wealth and status of Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” His point was that no matter how well-off Jews become, most stick with the Democrats and rally to the cause of outcasts. The same is true of well-to-do African Americans.

There is still a Democratic tendency among Catholics: Across income, regional and educational groups, white Catholics are consistently 8 to 12 percent more Democratic than comparable white Protestants. In the Post/ABC poll, Gore runs 13 points better among white Catholics than white Protestants. (Pollsters deal with Latino and black Catholics separately, for reasons we’ll get to.) But the Democrats’ advantage is much less than it once was.

Catholics are also the ultimate “cross-pressured” group. Many blue-collar and lower-middle-class Catholics are tugged toward the Democrats on issues of social justice and workers’ rights; but when it comes to family and cultural values, including abortion, they lean toward the Republicans. When Ronald Reagan invoked the trinity of “family, work and neighborhood,” he launched a slogan with enormous power in the old Catholic neighborhoods.

Younger Catholics are more traditional than their non-Catholic peers and more modernist than formal church teaching. Leege has found that they’re divided by gender: Younger Catholic women are more Democratic, younger Catholic men more Republican.

These pressures and ambivalences make Catholics potentially disruptive for both parties. Catholics who are liberal Democrats are more inclined to oppose abortion than other sorts of liberals. Catholics who are conservative Republicans value tradition and community and not just the free market. And Catholics who support the death penalty know how strongly their bishop and their pope oppose it. Being a Catholic liberal or a Catholic conservative inevitably means having a bad conscience about something.

All this can be confounding for lovers of political labels. Consider the difficulty of categorizing two prominent Catholics, William Bennett and the late Robert Casey. As governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995, Casey was as liberal as any other Democrat on social welfare and union issues. But he was seen by many as “conservative” solely because of his staunch opposition to abortion. Bennett, a solid conservative, has nonetheless said that “unbridled capitalism is a problem . . . for the whole dimension of things we call the realm of values and human relationships.”

Bennett was getting at something Sidney Blumenthal noticed in 1997. The senior White House adviser was trying to figure out why so many more-or-less free-trade Democrats declined to give the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate new trade agreements, insisting that the agreements include social and labor protections. Blumenthal stared at the list of House members who had turned against the president’s position and noticed that almost all the defectors were Catholic. “This was not simple protectionism,” Blumenthal says now. “It involved a deeply rooted tradition of Catholic social reform and solidarity.”

There’s debate over what would constitute “the Catholic vote,” even if it were agreed that one existed. Many studies focus on white Catholics—the Irish, Italians, Poles, French Canadians, Portuguese and others who immigrated to America.

The political histories of these groups differ vastly. Because the Irish dominated many urban Democratic machines around the turn of the century, later immigrants—such as Italians and my people, the French Canadians—often received a warmer welcome from the Republicans. (A close cousin of my dad’s, Oscar U. Dionne, died of a heart attack in the 1930s in the middle of a stump speech during his campaign for Massachusetts state treasurer on the Republican ticket.)

FDR’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal attracted many of these outlying Catholics to the Democratic Party. Ike drew them toward the Republicans in the 1950s. They came home to JFK and LBJ, but turned away again in 1972—partly in opposition to George McGovern’s candidacy but also, Leege says, in reaction to urban racial issues such as school busing. Richard Nixon’s campaign targeted “peripheral urban ethnics,” more or less a synonym for white Catholics.

Since then, Catholics have split their ballots, especially in presidential elections. Along with Southerners, Catholics formed the heart of “the Reagan Democrats.” Bill Clinton’s ability to regain Catholic votes was a building block of his victories—though his margins were thinner than those of an earlier generation of Democrats.

Yet if the studies tend to focus on white Catholics, the fastest-growing Catholic group today is Latino. And Latinos can’t be thought of as a single bloc, either. Cuban Americans are predominantly Republican; Puerto Ricans, Democratic. Mexican Americans in George W.’s Texas are more willing to vote Republican than Mexican Americans in California, who have become a solid Democratic bloc in response to a Republican-backed ballot initiative aimed at illegal immigrants.

And roughly 10 percent of African Americans are Catholic. But since African American Catholics are solidly Democratic, they tend to be treated by both parties as part of the larger African American vote.

So with Catholics deadlocked between Bush and Gore, what’s a campaign to do?

Bush began the year in a strong position to appeal to wavering Catholics—those who were uneasy with what they perceived as congressional Republican indifference to the poor but were disenchanted with the old welfare state. “Compassionate conservatism” was made for such voters: It acknowledges an obligation to the poor while asserting that the best way to express concern is through one-on-one, local initiatives. It also emphasizes church-based social action. The John Paul quotations in Bush speeches—such as his call for a “society of free work, of enterprise, of participation”—emphasize the link between individual and social responsibility.

The Bush strategy fits in with Wagner’s theories about Catholic voters. Wagner argues that the old “social justice” orientation of Catholics is giving way to an emphasis on “social renewal.” Partisans of social renewal, he says, are “Mass-attending Catholics” who see the country in “moral decline,” are suspicious of popular culture, and worry that the federal government is “inflicting harm on the nation’s moral character.” You can take issue with Wagner—I’d argue many Catholics favor both social justice and social renewal—but it’s a useful theory for Republicans.

Things were going swimmingly for Bush until his visit to Bob Jones U. in February. Given the university’s embrace of the oldest forms of anti-Catholicism, it was a Democratic tactician’s gift from heaven. Even after that, though, Bush is tied with Gore among Catholics—and that’s probably not good enough for Gore to win.

The vice president is waxing Catholic-friendly. His speech late last year on the importance of “faith-based organizations” could have been written by a prelate. Gore has spent a good part of this month talking about the importance of family and parental responsibility. And he takes positions on most social justice issues close to those of the Catholic bishops. But Gore’s strong support for abortion rights will hurt him among the same bishops, and among the many churchgoing Catholics who strongly oppose abortion.

The days are gone when taking Communion and pulling the Democratic lever were the outward signs of a good Catholic. The new partisan competition makes the Catholic vote interesting. As a Catholic, I’d like to think it could also be useful, and that Catholics might challenge both parties. Catholic Democrats might suggest that social justice and a concern for the health of family life go together. And Catholic Republicans could argue that acting on behalf of society’s least fortunate is not just good politics, but the right thing to do.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.