This is a summarized verison of the comments originally presented at the Pew Forum’s Biannual Conference on Religion and Public Life in Key West, Florida on May 5, 2008.
Once the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition, Catholics in recent decades have become the most important bloc of swing voters. In 1992, Bill Clinton helped secure his victory over President George H. W. Bush by gaining a nine-point edge among Catholics, an advantage he stretched to 16 points in 1996. By contrast, George W. Bush lost the Catholic vote in 2000 by only two points and won Catholics by five points in 2004. A huge mobilization of Catholic voters in Ohio provided Bush with his margin in that crucial state.
In the 2008 Democratic nominating contest, Catholics have emerged as key members of Hillary Clinton’s base. Of the 23 primaries for which adequate data exist, Hillary Clinton did better among white Catholics than among white Protestants in 16. The results in Pennsylvania’s primary on April 22 were startling: she won 63 percent of the overall white vote–72 percent of the white Catholic vote compared to only 59 percent of the white Protestant vote. To be sure, there were some demographic as well as religious differences: compared to white Protestants, Pennsylvania’s white Catholics are somewhat older, less educated and lower income. Still, the differences are too modest to explain more than a small portion of the gap.
A close analysis only deepens the mystery. Education is a modest factor: relative to Protestants, Clinton did better by 14 points among Catholic college graduates and by 8 points among those with less than a BA; Protestant college graduates seem particularly resistant to the appeal of a devout lifelong Methodist. Income and gender matter even less: Clinton’s total was 9 points better among Catholics making less than $50,000 than among Protestants and 12 points better among those making more, 12 points better among Catholic men and 13 points among women. For Catholics as well as the rest of the electorate, however, age matters a great deal: Clinton did 15 points better among Catholics older than 45 than among Protestants but only 3 points better among younger Catholics. Otherwise put, in Pennsylvania, older Catholics differed more from younger Catholics than do older from young Protestants.
Why should this be? The short answer is that no one knows for sure. Four alternative but not mutually exclusive hypotheses are at least plausible.
- Obama is running a reform-oriented campaign, and throughout American history, “reform” has always been associated with Protestantism more than Catholicism.
- Clinton’s relentless focus on bread and butter issues may appeal more to classic Catholic themes of social justice and the dignity of labor.
- Within Catholicism’s hierarchical structure, authority and leadership are correlated with age than in Protestantism, where young religious entrepreneurs can rise more readily.
- We cannot rule out the possibility that older Catholics are more uncomfortable with the possibility of an African American president than are older Protestants, though it is not immediately clear why this would be the case.
Whatever the explanation may be, Clinton’s Catholic advantage is fraught with political significance. In the Pennsylvania exit poll, 70 percent of white Protestant Democratic primary participants said they would stick with Obama in the general election contest against McCain, versus 79 percent who said they would stick with Clinton. But only 59 percent of white Catholics said they would stick with McCain, versus 85 percent for Clinton. That 26-point gap would be enough to make the different in closely contested states with large Catholic populations.
That turns out to be most of them. In fact, Catholics are at least 20 percent of the electorate in nearly every swing state and are above their national average of 24 percent in most of them, including Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. To be sure, these figures include Hispanic as well as white Catholics. But among Hispanic Catholics too, Clinton has done better than Obama, and John McCain’s Arizona base and moderate stance on immigration policy have made him more popular among Hispanics than are most other Republicans.
The bottom line is simple: if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, he will have to work hard to improve his standing among white Catholics. If he does not, even states that Democrats count on—such as Pennsylvania—may be up for grabs this November.