Yes, in Fact There IS a “Catholic Vote”

One of the worst errors/obfuscations by pundits it to suggest that what the pronouncements of the US Conference of Bishops have a significant effect on the electoral behavior of American Catholics. A act-on-everything-the-bishops-say voter would be for passage of the DREAM Act, favor increased aid to the poor, be skeptical of unregulated capitalism, be committed to cutting greenhouse gases as a way to address the threat of (fully acknowledged) human-caused global climate change, support labor unions, oppose most wars, and be against abortion, contraception, gay marriage, research using human embryonic stem cells and the death penalty.

That voting bloc is probably one person: Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.

But saying Catholics don’t do what the Bishops tell them to do isn’t the same as saying there isn’t a Catholic vote. In fact, this is not correct:

That difference between white Protestants and white Catholics is actually huge. Obama beat McCain 52% to 45%. Had he done as poorly among white Catholics as he did among white Protestants, his margin would have been only 50%-48%. But had he done as well with white Protestants as he did with white Catholics, he would have won 58%-40%. Swings that great would have effected votes downballot, as well. If white Protestants voted like white Catholics, Democrats may have picked up a couple more Senate seats, and many more House seats. Had it been reversed, Democrats might not have gained full control of the Senate and probably not added to their margin in the House.

The 2004 election provides an even more striking example of the difference of the white Catholic vs white Protestant vote. George W. Bush won white Protestants 65% to 34%. Had white Protestants voted like white Catholics–only 51%-48% for Bush–Bush would have fallen to 0-2 in national elections and John Kerry’s 51% would have been the best performance by a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Some of the voting difference between white Protestants and white Catholics is regional; 50 years ago Louisiana was the only Southern state with a significant Catholic population.  Southerns voted overwhelmingly Democratic, but as Jim Crow vanished, they became Republican, dramatically increasing the Republicans’ national share of the Protestant vote. The vast majority of white Catholics are urban and suburban, while a good percentage of white Protestants are rural. Suburban Catholics have swung around between the parties since the late sixties, but they’ve not shifted en masse like Southern white Protestants. These regional factors, as well as differences in educational attainment, union affiliation and income may be much more strongly correlated with and causal factors influencing voting preference than is affiliation with the Catholic Church.

But even within states, there are significant differences between white Catholics and white Protestants. In Florida, McCain won white Protestants 68%-30%, but white Catholics only 53%-46%. In Wisconsin white Protestants favored McCain 56%-43%, but white Catholics picked Obama 52%-48%. In Iowa, it was McCain 54%-44% among white Protestants, Obama 57%-42% among white Catholics. Maine wasn’t competitive because Obama won white Catholics 61%-37%. He may have lost it had white Catholics done as white Protestants, and favored McCain 50%-49%. McCain squeaked out a win in  Missouri because of his 65%-34% performance with white Protestants. But had they voted like white Catholics–who favored him by a more modest 58%-42% margin–McCain’s 3,900 vote win would have been a safe Obama win.

Catholic voters may vote Democratic for reasons that have little to do with faith. But a history of more recent immigration and social marginalization, a tradition of concern for the poor, and a stronger tradition of solidarity than exists in the more individualistic Protestantism are all possible reasons why white Catholics vote differently–and more Democratic–than do white Protestants…regardless of what the Bishops tell them.

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