The Democrat’s Secret Weapon: Will Catholics Put Dukakis in the Oval Office?

During presidential elections, political reporters occasionally latch onto a story about religious voting patterns, but they never follow those patterns on a systematic basis. This year, for example, they have written about white Evangelicals in the South, Jews in New York, and black Baptist churches across the country.

But they missed another important story—the role that Catholics played in determining the Democratic presidential nominee. Put briefly, this year it was Catholics—the largest group within the Democratic coalition—who effectively chose their party’s nominee with their overwhelming support for Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The race was close until Dukakis, who had run very well among Catholics in other areas, won pivotal primaries in Connecticut, Wisconsin, and New York, states with Catholic populations well above the national average.

The media’s failure to recognize the importance of the Catholic vote during the primaries may signal a comparable failure in the general election. While it would be inaccurate to say that Catholics are the most important swing vote in the 1988 election—all swing votes are, by definition, important—there is no doubt that the Catholic vote will play a major role in determining the winner.

There are several reasons why the media has failed to focus on the Catholic vote. One is the general lack of sustained interest in religious voting patterns in general. Another is the lack of a single visible leader, like Jesse Jackson or Jerry Falwell, to use as a hook to represent millions of Catholics. And, on a practical level, reporters tend to focus on Catholics as a key voting group only when abortion is a campaign issue, and it has not been one in the Democratic primaries.

At the same time, some experts on religion have been giving misleading advice about the Catholic vote. Wade Clark Roof, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that observers don’t pay attention to the Catholic vote anymore because Catholics vote like everyone else. And A. James Reichley of the Brookings Institution told the Washington Times that Catholics vote Democratic at the congressional level but vote on abortion at the presidential level.

Both claims are wrong. Despite the fact that 51 percent of Catholics voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 56 percent did so in 1984, Catholics remain one of the most solid Democratic groups in the country.

A Gallup survey conducted for the Times Mirror Corporation’s study, “The People, Press and Politics,” in January 1988, found that 40 percent of Catholics say they are Democrats and 22 percent say they are Republicans; when leaners are included, the margin becomes 53 to 33 percent Democratic. Significantly, there is not a great difference between white and minority—black and Hispanic—Catholics. Among white Catholics, for example, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 38 to 25 percent, and by 52 to 36 percent when leaners are included.

In contrast, white Evangelical Protestants tilt Republican (by 51 to 40 percent, with leaners included) and white non-Evangelical Protestants are fairly evenly divided (46 percent Republican, 42 percent Democratic).

Another question found that 30 percent of all Catholics and 28 percent of white Catholics find it hard to vote against a Democratic candidate, while only 16 and 17 percent, respectively, find it hard to vote against a Republican.

The study also shows that Catholics prefer Democratic policies, but are less enthusiastic about their candidates. Forty-six percent of all Catholics and 44 percent of white Catholics say they generally like Democratic policies; 27 percent of all Catholics and 30 percent of white Catholics say they generally like Republican policies. The pro-Democratic margin is smaller, however, on the question of candidates—40 percent of all Catholics and 37 percent of white Catholics say they generally like Democratic candidates, while 27 and 31 percent, respectively, say they generally like Republican candidates.

If the notion that Catholics vote just like everyone else doesn’t hold up, neither does the stereotype that they vote on abortion. A CBS-New York Times poll conducted on Election Day, 1984, found that most Catholics, like most other Americans, cited peace and prosperity as the issues that affected their votes. Reagan led among these Catholics. But the poll also found that only eight percent of Catholics cited abortion as key to their vote; 71 percent of this group voted for Reagan. But 18 percent of Catholics—twice as many—cited fairness to the poor as an issue affecting their vote, and 79 percent of this group voted for Walter Mondale.

The January 1988, Gallup Poll found that 33 percent of Catholics said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who wanted to change the law to make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion; but 37 percent said they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate. The responses are within the margin of error and statistically represent a tie. But the response indicates that Catholics will not be swayed by a candidate’s pro-life rhetoric.

Despite being stereotyped as conservatives, American Catholics are actually quite liberal on economics, foreign policy, and equal rights. For most of this century, the majority of Catholics came from working-class, immigrant backgrounds; many were deeply involved in the labor movement. This background produced a support for New Deal social programs that was reinforced by the church’s teaching that government had a legitimate role in bringing about social justice.


Protecting the Environment 62% 57%
Financial Aid for College Students 49% 42%
Social Security 67% 63%
AIDS Research 72% 67%
Aid for the Unemployed 46% 39%
Scientific Research 53% 42%
Programs for Blacks and Other Minorities 38% 35%
Improved Health Care 73% 71%
Reducing Drug Addiction 70% 65%
Improving the Nation’s Public Schools 68% 70%
Programs for the Homeless 69% 67%
Aid for Farmers 61% 57%
Programs for the Elderly 76% 74%


One measure of this attitude is support for government social programs and research. The chart above shows differences between Catholics and non-Catholics in support for increased government funding for specific programs.

Catholic liberalism carries over into foreign policy. As Catholics became more established in the nation’s mainstream, and free of worry about being called un-American, they felt freer to criticize U.S. foreign policy. The Vietnam War was a major turning point for American Catholics who began the war as hawks, but quickly turned dovish and have remained that way for a generation. They have been the strongest supporters of arms control and the strongest opponents of U.S. policy in Central America.

In general, it’s fair to say that Catholics have been a moderating force in both parties, preventing the Democrats from going too far to the left on foreign policy and preventing the Republicans from going too far to the right on economics.

How have these attitudes played out in 1988? Within the Republican Party, Catholics showed a clear preference for George Bush over Bob Dole, by almost a three-to-one margin. It’s likely that Catholic Republicans like George Bush the moderate from Connecticut, not the conservative from Texas. In any event, Catholic Republicans had no use for the hard ideological edge of Jack Kemp, Pete DuPont, or Pat Robertson.

On the Democratic side, a CBS-New York Times poll shows that on Super Tuesday, 42 percent of Catholics voted for Dukakis, followed by Jackson (18 percent), Gephardt (16 percent), and Gore (14 percent). A Washington Post-ABC poll found that in Connecticut, where Catholics make up 45 percent of the population, more than 60 percent voted for Dukakis. In Wisconsin, where Catholics make up 32 percent of the population, Dukakis won handily among Polish-American Catholics. According to the Post-ABC, he won 70 percent of the white Catholic vote in New York. By Pennsylvania, Dukakis had eliminated all his competition but Jackson and was winning handily among all groups except blacks.

In terms of a Bush-Dukakis race in the fall, one guideline may be a July 1987, survey which asked Americans whether they expected to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate in 1988, without mentioning any candidate’s names. The Democratic candidate led by 42 to 33 percent among all would-be voters and by 45 to 31 percent among Catholics. It may be that this run-off between generic candidates is a preview of a race between two candidates often viewed as generic themselves.

Catholics will likely retain their preference for Democratic policies; the real question will be whether they like Michael Dukakis the candidate. Catholic Democrats seem to feel comfortable with the Greek-American Dukakis as a (yellow ethnic, more moderate than Jesse Jackson, more experienced than Al Gore and more optimistic than Richard Gephardt; Republican and Independent Catholics may feel the same.

If the Catholic vote will be important, one particular part of the Catholic vote may be particularly important—the Hispanic vote. Seventy percent of U.S. Hispanics are Catholic, and one Catholic in six is Hispanic. Hispanics lag well behind the rest of the population in voter registration; according to Gallup, blacks (77 percent) are registered in the same proportion as the general population (78 percent), but only 61 percent of Hispanics are registered. (In contrast, 84 percent of white Catholics are registered). Dukakis, who speaks fluent Spanish, did unexpectedly well among Hispanic primary voters in Texas and Florida, and may be able to generate excitement among Catholic Hispanics and increase registration and turnout levels.

But Bush has also done well with Hispanics, and he remains popular with Catholic suburbanites. The real battleground is likely to be among Catholic blue-collar workers.

A number of pundits have compared the 1988 election to 1960 because it is the first election since then following the completion of two terms by a Republican president. But 1988 cannot be like 1960 for American Catholics because it lacks the historical dimension of John Kennedy’s campaign to become the first Catholic president that year. Kennedy received 78 percent of the Catholic vote, and no candidate is likely to do that well again. At the same time, it is not reasonable to expect that Bush will pull the 56 percent of the Catholic vote that Ronald Reagan won in his re-election landslide.

The 1988 election actually bears a closer resemblance to 1976, with a moderate Democrat (Carter) running against a moderate Republican (Ford). That year Carter won 57 percent of the Catholic vote, with 41 percent going to Ford and another 2 percent to the Catholic Gene McCarthy, who ran as an independent. Polls indicate that it is quite conceivable that Dukakis can beat Bush by a 3-2 margin among Catholics; if that happens, the election will be very close.


  • Jim Castelli

    Jim Castelli is the author of A Plea for Common Sense: Resolving the Clash Between Religion and Politics, and co-author with George Gallup, Jr., of The American Catholic People.

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