Silence about Obama, Catholic vote

catholicvoter Demography is destiny. For the most part, this apothegm has defined this year’s Democratic presidential election results. It sure characterized last night’s results in Indiana and North Carolina. As Christi Parsons and Mike Dorning, my old colleague at The Chicago Tribune, wrote,

Blacks, young people and college-educated voters overwhelmingly favored Obama, while white working-class voters, seniors and white women lined up decisively behind Clinton, a division in the Democratic Party that now appears impervious to gaffes, attacks and multimillion-dollar ad buys. The results followed each state’s demographic makeup.

Yet one voting group has been a demographic outlier: Catholics. In several states, Catholics have flitted between Obama and Clinton. True, Catholics have been a constituency of Hillary Clinton’s overall, but they have gone for Obama. As Eve Conant and Richard Wolffe of Newsweek point out,

Obama beat Hillary Clinton among Catholics in Louisiana and Virginia and tied her in Wisconsin. But in more recent primaries, Catholics have decisively turned away from him. In Ohio, exit polls showed that 65 percent backed Clinton. In Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of the Catholic vote.

What’s going on here? “The short answer is, I don’t know,” says [former Rep. Tim] Roemer, who has spent hours quizzing Catholics at rallies and town-hall meetings. One possibility: Obama’s ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Roemer says that, like other voters, the Catholics he meets mostly want to talk about what the candidate will do about the economy, gas prices and the mess in Iraq.

In search of an answer to the question, I scoured stories from the nation’s major newspapers. Here is what I found: nothing. The Washington Post had nothing on the Catholic vote, let alone the religious vote. The New York Times had nothing. The Tribune had nothing. You know what a whole lot of nothing adds up to, right?

Maybe reporters think that they wrote too many stories about the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, but that excuse is weak. Almost one-fifth of Indiana were Catholic.

I just think that the absence of coverage about Catholic voters is unjustified. I mean, Democratic operatives refer to Catholic voters, as the Tribune noted:

“Senator Clinton continues to run very strongly among people who are likely to be the swing voters in the November election–among moderate-income voters, blue collar voters, non-college educated voters, seniors, Catholics–and we think the results last night strengthen the case that she will be the strongest candidate for the Democratic Party in November,” [Geoff] Garin said.

With MSM reporters ignoring this angle, I refer readers to Dan Gilgoff’s Web site at Beliefnet. Here is a man doing reporting about the Catholic vote.

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  • George Weber

    Well, I am a Catholic and a senior and I know very well why I will not be able to vote for Obama in the general election. You need to remember the phrase “punished with a baby” to clear up your uncertainty. At the very least, Clinton has used the words safe, legal, and seldom to reflect her public view on abortion. Obama leaves no room for debate on this matter. Here is one case where “pro-choice” equals “pro-abortion” without question. Unless his handlers give me some room for hope that he will support legislation to fund crisis pregnancy mothers, I will stay away from Obama in November.

  • Brian Walden

    Maybe they’re not reporting about the Catholic Vote because it doesn’t really exist. Does anyone know what percentage of Catholic voters actually factor Catholic beliefs into their decision? Sadly, I think it’s a minority of voters. If there is a Catholic Vote I would think it’s due to other factors that may be common among Catholics in a certain state. In which case you’d get more accurate data by classifying voters according to those factors.

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  • Dave

    I hope I will not be considered anti-Catholic for the comment that the Catholic vote may be too ill-defined as between Obama and Clinton to figure into the punditspeak. I follow the PBS News Hour coverage, and one thing they point out repeatedly is that, within the demographics in which Clinton and Obama respectively have already done well, they continue to do well; the breakout is stable over time. If that’s not true of the Catholic vote, then perhaps looking at that vote has no predictive value.

  • tmatt

    A wise DC-based Catholic priest once told me that there are actually four Catholic votes, defined by faith and practice, not politics.

    * Ex-Catholic vote.

    * Cultural Catholic/several Masses a year Catholic vote.

    * Sunday only, I’m OK at the Catholic cafeteria vote.

    * Catholics who sweat the details and go to confession vote.


  • http://N/A Nikki Sayers

    As Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice remarked when Gore ran against Bush some years back “any Catholic who votes for Gore is brain dead.” Catholics who continue to support pro-abortion and pro-same-sex marriage candidates are ignorant of their faith or don’t care. They have improperly formed consciences, are probably too much “of the world,” and are cultural Catholics who really aren’t faithful adherents.

  • Harris

    I would think that the silence about Catholics in Indiana is that they overlap other factors. The concentration in the northwest IN was also a hotbed of strong Obama support. For the general reader, the religious differences would be most useful where they are determinative. And as the results from the other evening show — at least in NW IN — they were not.

  • Jerry

    Adding to what Harris said, if you look at exit polls from Indiana, Obama won amongst those who attend church more than weekely. monthly and never. Clinton won amongst those attending church weekly and “a few times a year”.

    There are going to be PhD theses written dissecting this years primary season. I heard someone talk about how the use of race as a determining factor was misleading and that age was much more important in dividing Obama and Clinton supporters. I read earlier but can’t find now that Obama won all age groups in Indiana except those over 65. Social class, income and education have also been mentioned. Gender is another obvious factor. And there have been many blog posts here about religion. I guess we should all enjoy the opportunity for discussion and debate this gives us.

  • FW Ken

    Fr. Andrew Greeley, priest, novelist, and sociologist, made the point in The Catholic Imagination that unless Catholics actually convert to another religion, they generally continue to identify as “Catholic” more than other groups.

    The taxonomy in #5 is a good alternative to uncritical acceptance of any reporting that speaks of a “Catholic vote” or Catholic belief, or Catholic practice. Unless a survey controls for creedal belief and Mass attendance (at a minumum), it should be treated with great care.

  • Jerry

    Mark, there was a comment about the Catholic vote that should be a tiny drop in the void on PBS NewsHour:

    [Obama] still held his people and he actually did better in Indiana with some of the demographic groups that Hillary Clinton had done well with — the Catholics and some of the white ethnic groups.

  • tioedong

    One reason that practicing Catholics might vote against Obama is his blocking a state law while Illinois senator to mandate treatment of abortion baby survivors.

    The pro life blogs know this, so I suppose the more pious Catholics do too…

    No way I’d vote for him. Hillary is almost as bad in the abortion matters, but is more pragmatic, whereas Obama is a true believer of the left.

  • FrGregACCA

    tmatt (#5):

    Interesting. Sounds about right. My suspicion is that the folks in your latter category trend toward McCain, even though he is not exactly militant when it comes to being pro-life/anti-abortion and his support for the Iraq war may also be problemmatic for them. As far as the rest, I’d like to see that taxonomy layered over other factors, such as socioeconomic status and ethnicity. For example, who wins the African-American Catholic vote?

  • Dan

    As others have observed, “cultural Catholics” are no longer distinguishable from the rest of America. They do not constitute a recognizable voting block and do not merit news coverage. The “Catholics who sweat the details and go to confession vote” are another story. But how many of these Catholics exist? My back of the envelope estimate is that there are about 2.5 million such Catholics who vote. My calculation is as follows: there are about 70 million Catholics in the U.S.; about 10% of them, 7 million, “sweat the details”; of the “sweaters,” 3/4, or 5.25 million, are adults; and about half, about 2.5 million, of the adult “sweating Catholics” vote.

    In my opinion, the 2.5 million “sweating Catholics” who vote are the real “Catholic vote.” I would venture that over half of this camp consists of people who wish they could vote Democratic but vote Republican because of abortion. It is quite arguable that this camp cost Gore the election in 2000 and Kerry the election in 2004 (although Kerry lost the total popular vote by 3 million in 2004).

  • Peggy

    It’s hard to put a religious rationale to why Catholics split between Obama and Hillary. Both are pro-abort. Catholics who choose to vote Dem are already “seamless garment” types or maybe pro-abort themselves. There is no reason based on religious practice to choose one over the other, unless one is grossly offended by Obama’s firm homage to abortion of late.

    Further, the cable networks reported that Indy Catholics went 59% for Hillary, about the same rate(60%) for Protestants. So, by the time the print media gets to it, the conclusion is that Catholics did not vote differently from Protestants in Indy, thus, not of interest.

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  • Dvora,OCDS

    I’m one of the sweat-the-details Catholic voters mentioned by tmatt. Although I was raised Republican, I have cast a ballot or two for a Democrat in my lifetime (1976 and 1992, plus the late Rep. Julia Carson).

    I was torn this time… I’m a former community organizer, too; so, a call to change is attractive to me, and “hope does not disappoint.” I was disgusted by the other options, still suspicious of the Radcliffe grad with a shady past in bad real estate deals. The noble Vietnam vet never struck me as the best candidate for the job, either.

    After hours of research, I decided to vote my Hoosier conscience for the candidate of my choice:

    I voted for Ron Paul.

  • Junkheer

    The fact remains that the Catholic vote has been the largest single swing vote in the United States and has voted for the winning candidate in the last 11 elections and the only one in which they did not select the winning candidate was in 2000 when they chose the candidate who got the popular vote. The largest single consituency of the “Reagan Democrats” were Catholic Democrats.

    The fact remains that Catholic will readily swing from Democrat to Republican depending on which candidate is closer to being a centrist, because most Catholic Democrats lean towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, not the liberal.

    In most states where Clinton won a smaller percentage of the Catholic vote, there were other factors. Louisiana for example has a significant percentage of black Catholic voters. The single significant factor is that in states where the percentage of Catholics was at near exceeded the national average of 24 percent Clinton wiped soundly thrashed Obama in his percentage of the Catholic vote. In the few states where Obama won slightly larger percentage of the Catholic vote, you had situations in which the Catholic involved were among another Demographic. They were Catholics who earned over 75,000 a year, another key Obama demographic. When observed at the national scale, Obama does not have the Catholic vote where it will be necessary. The odds of Obama winning states that have voted extremely towards the Red end of the political spectrum that have a lot of Catholic are very remote. The odds of him winning in states where they are necessary is also just as small.

    Several recent polls show Obama running neck and neck with McCain in one of the most Blue and Most Catholic States in the country. That is Massachussetts.

    Other poll that indicate that a percentage of Clinton voters would not vote for Obama if he was the nominee, but would vote for McCain also seem to indicate that those voters who would swing from Democrat to Republican are largely Catholic. This is not unlikely. Even though John Kerry was a Catholic running for the presidency in 2004 Catholic voted for Bush by 56 percent on the national level. In some states like Missouri they voted for Bush by 53 percent, so in order to get that national average of 56 percent, other states had to vote at somewhat higher percentages.

    One thing is rather clear about American Democrat Catholics. Neither abortion or birth control is as much of an issue for them as it is for American Republican Catholics. There are many American Catholics, a majority in fact, who break with the church on these two issues, and no castigation of them by Republican Catholics has the slightest effect on their decision to vote for a Democrat.

    Other issues end up being far more important, and the major one is that Catholics in most states tend to vote for more conservative leaning Democrats than for the more liberal leaning ones. At least currently. You have Catholic Democrats in office in places like Massachussetts who have been long term incumbents, and the were elected at a time when the Catholic vote tended to vote directly on a party line, than the more recent tendency to be swing voters.