Campaign Notes: Why the Catholic Vote Will Be Decisive in 1988

If the Democrats hope to capture the White House in 1988, the party’s nominee will have to do something that the Democratic standard-bearer has accomplished only once in the past four elections—carry the Catholic vote. Dependably Democratic through most of their history, American Catholics have moved away from the party of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. Instead of realigning with the GOP, however, American Catholics have become the single largest swing constituency.

“When traditional Catholic allegiance to the Democratic party asserts itself,” write George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli in their The American Catholic People (1987), “the Democrats win—or come very close. When the Republicans make substantial inroads into the Catholic vote, they win.”

Catholics account for about 22 percent of the total national population, but an even higher proportion of actual voters. More importantly, Catholics are over-represented in the areas richest with electoral votes. According to the Official Catholic Directory 1984, Catholics accounted for 46 percent of the population of New England and 35 percent of the Middle Atlantic states. And key electoral states like Florida (15 percent), Texas (19 percent) and California (22 percent) also include large numbers of Catholics. The 1988 presidential candidates must go “where the ducks are.”

In the Saturday Review of Literature (1959), pollster Elmo Roper once argued “The Myth of a Catholic Vote.” But Catholics have been regarded by politicians and political analysts as a distinct political force because they have lived and acted that way. Even a cursory examination of Catholic voting behavior shows obvious differences between Catholics and other religious groups. s

Since the Republicans were heavily Protestant during the nineteenth century, Catholics—particularly Irish Catholics—found the Democratic party a more inviting home. To be sure, Catholics in some parts of the country found little room in the Irish-dominated Democratic party, and turned to the Republicans. (In New York State, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, for example, many Italian Catholics gravitated to the GOP.) But on the whole, both in the nineteenth century and in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Catholics preferred the Democrats to the Republicans.

The nomination of Al Smith by the Democrats in 1928 and the depression of the early 1930’s cemented this relationship. Catholics, generally poorer, with less formal education and occupying lower status occupations, thought the Republicans less caring and compassionate, less interested in the “common man.” The emergence of strong Democratic organizations in the cities—organizations frequently run by Catholics and concerned for the needs of working-class Catholics—created a Catholic electorate with strong bonds to the Democratic party.

If nineteenth-century American Catholics merely preferred the Democrats, most of their counterparts in the 1930s and 1940s were passionately devoted. But then Catholics shared in the increased prosperity and educational benefits of the post-World War II era, and the growth of the suburbs helped to spur questioning and new allegiances. The way that church “progressives” interpreted Vatican II helped accelerate the growing political diversity among American Catholics. A nice irony.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Catholic party identification and presidential preference fluctuated. Some 80 percent of Catholic voters in 1960 cast ballots for John Kennedy, and Catholic support for Lyndon Johnson was equally strong. Both in 1956 and 1968, however, many Catholic voters deserted the Democratic presidential nominee. Still, at no time during those two decades did as much as one-fifth of Catholics express preference for the Republican party, as a party. And no GOP presidential hopeful during the five elections (1952, 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968) captured a majority of Catholic voters.

Among Catholics, 1928 was a watershed year for the Democratic party, as 1972 was for the GOP. Richard Nixon became the first Republican presidential candidate to draw a majority of the Catholic vote. To be sure, Democrats of all varieties left their party’s nominee in droves. But the fact that more Catholics voted for Richard Nixon than for Democrat George McGovern opened up new possibilities. The country’s biggest swing group was born.

Thus, Jimmy Carter once gain drew a majority of Catholics back into the Democratic fold in 1976, although not by much, even though an unusually high percentage voted for Republican Gerald Ford.

If anyone had doubted that Catholics were now a swing electoral constituency, the 1980 and 1984 elections eliminated all doubt. Ronald Reagan carried a plurality of Catholics in 1980 and a majority in 1984. For the first time, Republican presidential candidates outdrew the Democratic nominees in successive elections. Catholic GOP party identification jumped from 14 percent in 1978 to 25 percent in 1980.

But, as New York Times political reporter E.J. Dionne wrote in Party Coalitions in the 1980s, “If Catholics have moved away from the Democrats, they have hardly embraced the Republicans with enthusiasm.”

Three pieces of evidence suggest that Catholics might under certain circumstances, be happy to return to the Democratic fold. First, while Ronald Reagan carried Catholics in his two presidential elections, the percentage of Catholics who voted for him fell below his national average. In 1984, for example, he drew 53 percent of Catholic voters but almost 70 percent of white Protestants. In other words, Catholics still lagged the rest of the electorate in supporting Reagan.

Second, although Republican party identification among Catholics jumped in 1980 and bounced back relatively strong in 1984 and 1986, the Democrats continue to hold a two-to-one edge among Catholics in that respect. And 1982 was an omen. When the economy dipped in 1982, Democratic party identification surged briefly from 43 percent in 1980 to 54 percent, and GOP identification among Catholics dropped back down to 16 percent. As the economy improved, the Republican advance resumed, although far below the Democratic level.

Third, while Ronald Reagan was carrying a majority of Catholics in 1984, Democratic House candidates were drawing 58 percent of the Catholic vote. All evidence suggests that below the presidential level Catholic voters still prefer the Democrats, though by smaller percentages than in the past.

While it is reasonable to talk about the “Catholic vote” as if it were homogeneous (since Catholics as Catholics do differ in political behavior from Protestants and Jews), it is important not to obscure the differences among Catholics.

Political scientist John Petrocik of the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that Polish and Irish Catholics historically have been much more Democratic than other Catholics. He has also found that non-Irish, non-Polish Catholics with high income and educational levels tend to be even more Republican.

Finally, younger Catholics tend to be more politically independent—and therefore more amenable to GOP entreaties—than do older Catholics.

But Catholics are not only becoming more independent politically, they are becoming more diverse. Ironically, during the 1930s and 1940s, when few Catholics openly disagreed with the Church’s “conservative” teachings on moral issues, Catholics were strongly Democratic, while in the 1980s—with theological liberals arguing against Catholic teachings on birth control and abortion—Catholics were moving toward the more politically conservative GOP.

While there are clear Catholic teachings on the moral aspects of a number of issues, American Catholics are now distributed across the spectrum on the political aspects of such questions as abortion, the dissemination of birth control information in schools, aid to anticommunist forces (e.g., the contras in Nicaragua), and government spending on social programs. Politically, Catholics have become, as Wall Street Journal reporter Dennis Farney called them in January, “a schizophrenic group.”

Polling conducted by the Roper Institute and by the National Opinion Research Center in late 1984—near Ronald Reagan’s resounding reelection—showed that one-fifth and one-quarter of Catholics called themselves liberals, respectively in line with the national average.

Catholic voters, of course, do express particular concerns. For example, they are generally supportive of tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to parochial schools. But on most questions, they are split into at least four camps: those who are strongly religious and hold conservative political views which seem to them to follow from their orthodox beliefs; those who are strongly religious and hold liberal political views which seem to them to follow from their orthodox beliefs; those who are strongly religious but separate their personal beliefs from political issues; and those who identify themselves as Catholics but for whom religion has little or no impact on their daily lives. The differences are easy to see in the data.

NORC surveys taken in the early part of the 1980s (presumably one of the more conservative periods of our recent history) showed that 46 percent of Irish Catholics believed that a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion if she was married and did not want any more children. An astounding 38 percent said that she should be able to get an abortion for any reason. Hispanics (overwhelmingly Catholic) were much more “traditional,” with only 29 percent favoring abortion on demand. Still, for a church clearly on record opposing legal abortion, the percentage of Catholics favoring legal abortion is substantial.

“You see much greater resistance to abortion with Catholics over the age of fifty. With younger Catholics, especially those with a college education, you see a more liberal view of the issue,” says Boston-based Democratic pollster Tom Kiley.

When asked about premarital sex, only 26 percent of Irish Catholics and 43 percent Hispanics said that it was “always or almost always wrong.” In short, as in Catholic cultures spread around the world, traditions of daily life and practice differ among different Catholic ethnic groups.

In our 1984 study, The Evangelical Voter, well over a majority of Catholics who said they were “born again” supported a nuclear freeze, and a plurality favored cuts in defense spending, placing them far to the left of most evangelicals.

Numbers, of course, can deceive. Minorities of Catholics at both ends of the ideological spectrum tend to be the most organized and active. Some Catholics have been very active in the Right to Life movement. Others have been vocal supporters of disarmament or increased social spending for the poor. Some have been both. Regardless of the reasons for the heterogeneity of Catholic public opinion (some surely would say that the Church itself must bear some responsibility as long as the American bishops make a broad range of political pronouncements), it is a political fact of life that Catholics can be found holding positions ranging from far left to far right.

The diversity of Catholic public policy positions suggests that successful political candidates in 1988 must first sharpen public opinion by focusing the political agenda. Most Americans have an interest—but only a peripheral one—in politics. They do not daily sit around discussing political issues and debating public policy proposals. Rather, they filter messages offered by the candidates in the light of their own attitudes and values.

Both parties are targeting swing Catholic voters, and each campaign is likely to treat Catholics both as unique and also as the same as other Americans. The candidates will address what they perceive to be uniquely Catholic concerns, while at the same time trying to define a broad range of issues acceptable to a majority of Americans. The Democratic nominee will probably appeal to working-class Catholics, imploring them to “return” to the party of the little guy, and promising government services without tax increases. The Republican nominee will likely focus on issues the

GOP sees as particularly “Catholic”—such as tuition tax credits, anticommunism, and abortion—while at the same time appealing to a local sense of family and neighborhood (and against “big government”).

“If you are a Democratic candidate for president looking to build a winning coalition, one of the key elements would be urban Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest. We Democrats have to do a better job of attracting those voters than we have in the last four presidential elections,” maintains Kiley.

Catholic voters—like all Americans—will have to decide which party they find more trustworthy and more effective, and which party is talking about the cutting issues. The answers to those questions should decide how Catholics vote… and that should decide the results in November.

  • Stuart Rothenberg and Steve Lilienthal

    At the time this article was written, Stuart Rothenberg and Steve Lilienthal edited The Political Report, a publication of the Institute for Government and Politics.

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