(Cue: audible sigh) Hunting for ‘Catholic voters,’ again

The myth of the “Catholic voter” lives on and on and for perfectly logical reasons, even though use of this term adds next to nothing of our understanding of public life in America today.

To understand the power of this vague and largely meaningless term, check out the top of this recent NPR piece:

Since 1972, every single presidential candidate who has won the popular vote has also won the Catholic vote. But with Catholics making up one in every four voters, pinning down what exactly the Catholic vote is becomes tricky.

Catholics no longer reliably vote for any one party, but historically, they have voted Democratic.

Catholics no longer reliably vote for any one party, in large part, because there is no one, united body of Catholic believers in America — with “Catholic” being defined in terms of faith, practice and doctrine. If there is no one Catholic faith, in the pews, then there is no one Catholic vote in voting booths.

To write about the “Catholic vote” today, one must take seriously the doctrinal conflicts between Catholics and, especially, their commitment to the practice of their faith and participation in the Sacraments. At the bare minimum, journalists have to take into account the whole “pew gap” factor, as well as differences between white Catholics and Latinos.

Want to break some ground in a poll? Find out if Latinos who attend Mass once a week or more (and perhaps go to regular Confession) vote differently from Latinos who do not.

Meanwhile, we continue to see plenty of mainstream journalists (this is from a short Religion News Service piece, as carried in The Washington Post) using language such as this:

President Obama’s support among Catholic voters has surged since June, according to a new poll, despite a summer that included the Catholic bishops’ religious freedom campaign and the naming of Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate.

On June 17, Obama held a slight edge over Mitt Romney among Catholics (49-47 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. Since then, Obama has surged ahead, and now leads 54-39 percent, according to a Pew poll conducted on Sept. 16. … Obama and Romney are essentially tied among white Catholics, which some pollsters call the ultimate swing group. …

From June 21-July 4, the U.S. Catholic bishops held a “Fortnight for Freedom,” with Masses, prayer groups and presentations in dozens of dioceses nationwide. The campaign was directed in part against an Obama administration mandate that requires some religious institutions, such as colleges and hospitals, to provide cost-free contraception coverage to employees.

John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said Obama’s surge among Catholic voters does not mean the bishops’ campaign was ineffective. But religious freedom is not the most salient issue for Catholics during an election dominated by economic concerns, he said.

“It’s not the issue that most middle-of-the-road Catholics are responding to,” Green said.

Note, please, Green’s reference to “middle-of-the-road Catholics.”

Yes, it would have been great to have known how he defined that term, since no one knows more about these issues than the sage from Ohio. You can tell that the Pew people know the score, as well, since the following information shows up in a news report published in the more nuanced, niche, context of Catholic World News:

Among Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, Romney holds a 51%-42% lead. Catholics who attend Mass “monthly” or “yearly” favor Obama by a 53%-39% advantage, while Catholics who attend Mass “seldom” or “never” back Obama by a 61%-32% margin. …

The survey also found that white Catholics favor Obama by a 47%-46% margin.

Protestants favor Romney by a 50%-42% margin; among white evangelical Protestants, the pro-Romney advantage is 74%-19%, while the two candidates are in a 46%-46% dead heat among mainline Protestants.

The political give and take, as usual, seems to be in the tense zone between weekly Mass Catholics and monthly Mass Catholics. But why is this the case? Answer that question and you are chasing the actual Catholic votes that, as a rule, are in play election after election. That’s where the story is, in the pews and, I would argue, at Communion rails. It’s a story about doctrines and the wide arena of Catholic social teachings — all of them.

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have discussed these factors in evolving language that I first heard from a veteran priest here in Washington, D.C. This language fits with the reality that I see deep in the Pew numbers year after year, with the exception of the fourth category, where the poll-slate goes blank.

Once again, these terms define Catholic voters in terms of religion, more than politics, with the emphasis on beliefs and practice:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (perhaps even many Latinos) lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter … depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. These voters are regulars in the pews and may even fill leadership roles in their parishes. These are the Catholic voters that are really up for grabs, the true swing voters that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to Confession, is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Once again, I would argue that one of the most important, but least covered, stories in American life is the status of the Sacrament of Confession in Catholicism today. It’s a religion story, not a political story, but this is an issue that touches many others in Catholic pews and at Catholic altar rails.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Roberto

    There’s another factor that must be considered: the “gap” between white native-born Catholics and Latino immigrant Catholics and their children. The latter can be just as committed in their practice of the faith as the “sweat the details” Catholics you describe above but their life experiences are different. For starters, they are not so much trying to “win back” America or otherwise restore some status quo ante as simply to find their place in the American landscape.
    In a sense, their situation is analogous to that of African-American Christians. Any attempt to analyze the “pew gap” that doesn’t take into account the different experiences of different groups has its own gap.

    • SK

      Agreed.How life experiences whether racial, economic or cultural tend to divide religious groups.

  • JRA

    Exactly right. The divide between regular confession and no confession is a meaningful one in that it correlates to many other things (view of the role of faith in one’s life, political leanings, relative importance of various public policy issues, etc).

  • tmatt

    The polls indicate that the Latino vote simply does not link to parish involvement to anywhere near the degree as the Anglo vote. That’s why I suggested that someone needs to explore WHY that is the case. The divide certainly is there, but what does it mean?

    The main thing regular Confession means is an acceptance of the church’s actual teachings on Holy Communion and the entire body, or Body, of the Sacraments. What is Catholicism without the Mass? And what does the Mass mean without a connection between sin and repentance, between Confession and Holy Communion?

  • Julia

    Regular confession also means doing a serious examination of conscience – which forces you to look at what you are doing or not doing in your life relative to church law and the ten commandments. That makes it more difficult to kid yourself. The current practice of expecting that everybody is going to Communion every Sunday doesn’t help. Once you start going because everybody else is going so you don’t get stared at, it’s easier to just forget about Confession. When there was a mandatory fast, people could always assume that you ate breakfast and broke your fast. That is no longer available as cover. Some friends & I decided to not go now and then just on principles. You wouldn’t believe the people who try to force it on you – especially if you sing in the choir and Communion is brought up specially for us. Especially the younger people no longer see the need for Confession. You are wise to see that going to Confession is a significant marker.

  • Julia

    Should have reviewed my comment before posting.

    “Some friends & I decided to not go now and then just on principles. You wouldn’t believe the people who try to force it on you ”

    I meant forcing Communion on people; I wasn’t referring to Confession.

  • Neil

    The “expert” quoted in the story is, I think, mistaken when he said “Obama’s surge among Catholic voters does not mean the bishops’ campaign was ineffective. But religious freedom is not the most salient issue for Catholics during an election dominated by economic concerns, he said.”

    This election has not in fact been dominated by economic concerns. The Republicans by adopting an extreme platform made the election about social issues, particularly as defined by the religious right. By facing the social issues head on, the Democrats have engaged the battle, and Catholics (at least the ex-Catholics and Cultural Catholics) have flocked to them. They have certainly rejected the bishops’ campaign, but on social issues broader than the so-called “religious freedom” question.

    • SK

      Its not merely ex- Catholics but also Catholics who may be regular at mass but due to economic reasons or immigration issues vote Democrat

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    When we discuss Catholics and “Catholics, the old Pogo observation still rings true: “We have met the enemy……..and he is us”.

    Regretfully, there is no Catholic vote.

  • Kris D

    Another thing that would be interesting to find out is how much movement there has been between those Catholic subgroups, especially in the 10 years since sex abuse scandal. The perception of the Church has not been static during this time & it might be that these groups haven’t been either.

  • Pax et Bonum

    What is the source of the term “sweating the details Catholic”? The link above the grey box only sends me to the blog landing page. Activity in the full sacramental life of the Church isn’t exactly a mere “detail”.
    I’d also note that our parish is pretty much full for Advent and Lenten penance services. Those who make use of the sacrament of reconciliation are not, in my experience at least, “a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.”

  • tmatt


    Actually, that link takes your to a whole library of GetReligion posts that reference these discussions. The “sweats” language came from the K Street priest.

    Sad to say, but your parishioners are quite rare in the US context. The percentage of US Catholics who go to Confession more than once a year — if that — is shockingly low. I’ve seen numbers in the 4 percent range.

  • FW Ken

    I hope this isn’t off-topic, but it strikes me as relevant to the question of reporting on “the Catholic vote”.


    The underlying NYT piece is interesting on its own, addressing the issue of balance, which also seems like a perennial topic here.

  • Ted Seeber

    There is no Catholic vote because there is no Catholic party. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats fit the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on public or private morality. They fail in different ways- but both parties fail.

    Which is why I have yet, after 20 years and going into my 5th Presidential election, to vote for a major parity candidate.

    • Gina


  • o.h.

    A comment on the post itself: why does the “at the communion rail” expression (twice in the above post) persist? In thirty years of Catholicism I have only once ever seen a communion rail present and used in a Catholic church – in a Canadian cathedral. When I see the expression used, my first thought is that the writer is not Catholic.