04/03/2008 - The presidential candidates have recently intensified their efforts to woo Catholic voters, underscoring the election-year significance of this key swing constituency. Pew Forum Senior Fellow John Green discusses Catholic voting trends in past elections, the challenges facing the campaigns as they reach out to Catholics and how the church’s growing Hispanic population may impact future elections.
John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Publishing, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer:
Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive in Washington on April 15 to begin what will be his first visit to the United States. Is such a visit during an election year likely to have an effect on Catholic voters?
The visit is unlikely to have a direct impact on many voters because the pope is unlikely to endorse a particular candidate or to take a position on the different controversies in American elections. However, his visit could have an important indirect effect on Catholics. The pope is very likely to talk about issues, and issues can matter to voters. For example, if he stresses conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, that may energize conservative Catholics. And if he speaks out against the Iraq war or talks about social welfare issues and immigration, that may energize the liberal Catholic left. If he talks about all those issues, he may energize a variety of Catholic voters.
Have Catholics historically tended to vote Republican or Democratic, or have they been swing voters?
One of the most enduring images in American politics is of the New Deal coalition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the 1930s and 1940s. One of the pillars of the New Deal coalition was the strong Democratic support of white Catholics, that is, Catholics of European ancestry. This image has stuck in many people’s minds; however, it is no longer accurate. The high point of the Democratic identification among Catholics came in 1960 when one of their own, John F. Kennedy, ran for the presidency and became the first and only Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States.
But since then, Catholics have become markedly less Democratic. Starting in the 1970s a strong Republican contingent began to develop among white Catholics, and many Catholics became independents. Many Catholics are swing voters, switching between the Democrats and the Republicans depending on the candidates and the issues in campaigns. In fact, some pundits argue that as the Catholic swing vote goes, so goes the presidential election.
Today, Catholics are quite divided politically. What we have is not one Catholic vote but several different Catholic votes: a Catholic Republican vote, a Catholic swing vote and a Catholic Democratic vote, which includes most minority Catholics. Among white Catholics, these differences are based in part on Mass attendance and religious beliefs. For example, more-observant Catholics tend to vote Republican while less-observant Catholics tend to vote Democratic.
Read the complete transcript Courting Catholics in 2008 on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.