Elections and the Changing Catholic Demographic Print
By George J. Marlin   
Thursday, 22 March 2012

For most of our nation’s history, the American Catholic voter has been an important contributor to the electoral process. This has been confirmed in every presidential election cycle by analysts who discuss the impact of the Catholic vote and debate whether rank-and-file Catholics – who have voted for the winning candidate in nine of the last ten elections – will once again be a decisive voting bloc.

Most pundits fail to understand, however, that it’s essential to be very careful in analyzing Catholic voting data. Surveys can be skewed, for instance, because they include nominal or “cafeteria” Catholics who do not practice the faith. While generic Catholics make up 25 percent of the national vote, the most influential subset is practicing Catholics – 9 percent of the voting public. 

Their votes have greater impact because they are concentrated in the key swing states (i.e., Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan) that determine presidential elections. In closely contested races in these states, practicing Catholics can provide the margin of victory for a candidate who subscribes to their social views.

And woe to candidates who take these Catholic voters for granted or annoy them. In 2008, for example, church-going, blue-collar Catholics in America’s rust belt, who were unhappy with McCain and could not in good conscience vote for Obama, stayed home. This year, Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, has not done well with his co-religionists in battleground primary states (on Tuesday in Illinois, Romney took 48 percent of Catholics, Santorum only 32 percent). 

It appears that, in his quest for Evangelical Christian votes, Santorum lost the support of practicing Catholics who may have agreed with his positions but were turned off by his shrill rhetoric:

Michigan – Catholics favored Romney over Santorum by 7 percentage points
 
Florida – Catholics favored Romney over Santorum by 46 percentage points
 
Ohio – Catholics favored Romney over Santorum by 13 percentage points
Catholic primary voters also favored Romney over Santorum in South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and most recently in Illinois.

During the past fifty years, the make-up of America’s Catholic population has significantly changed and this has impacted Catholic voting patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, old-line Catholics were perplexed and shocked by the social upheavals within their religious and political institutions. Vatican II, the pill, Vietnam, Watergate, and the women’s liberation movement severely disrupted their religious life.

As a result of this confusion, between 1957 and 1973, while the number of self-identified white Catholics did not drop, their average weekly Church attendance fell from 74 percent to 55 percent. For white Catholics under thirty, the decline was even greater; down to 35 percent from 73 percent. Today about 60 percent of all white Catholics raised in America are no longer practicing. Half of them have left the Church, the other half are nominal or cafeteria Catholics.



The Catholic choice?

The fact is, all American Christians have become less observant:

Adult Christians Who Attended Church Weekly
 
1940s
45%
1950s
35%
1960s
25%
1970s
25%
1980s
30%
1990s
25%
2000s
20%  

The number of baptized Christians who have abandoned their religion by the time they had reached adulthood has also spiraled up in each successive generation:

Entering Adulthood
 
No Religion
1950s
7%
1960s
12%
1970s
14%
1980s
17%
1990s
21%
2000s
26%
 

There is some good news: a majority of baptized Christian Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now oppose abortion:

 
18-29 Year Olds
Approved of
Abortion
1970
63%
1980
55%
1990
51%
2000
48%
2010
43%
 

One ray of hope for the Catholic Church in America is the growing number of Latinos. Today, 35 percent of Catholics are Latino. While the old dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis are closing churches and parochial schools, newer ones in the South and Southwest are growing by leaps and bounds to serve Latino flocks. In the Atlanta Diocese for instance, a new parish or school is opening every few months. 

Percentage of U. S. Latino Catholics by Age
18-34 Year Olds
58%
35-49 Year Olds
34%
50-64 Year Olds
16%
65 Plus
15%
 

Seven out of ten young Catholics who attend Church regularly are Latino. A vast majority of Latinos hold that Catholicism “is their inheritance” and it is “their roots.”

Latino vs. White Catholics
 
Latino
White
Religion is extremely important
72%
56%
Religion is very important
81%
64%
Religion is important for identity
57%
40%
        

What are politicians to make of these changes in the Catholic population? Parties and pollsters alike have recognized that Catholics, as Catholics, are no longer a cohesive political force and approach them as several separate groups with different political hot buttons.

Political analyst John Morgan, contends there are now five groups of Catholic voters:

  • Urban, ethnic blue-collar types found in the Northeast and Midwest. They are typically Democratic but socially conservative.
  • Suburban Catholics who for the most part are third-generation Irish and Italian. They are found in Long Island and outside of Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee and St. Louis. They are more attached to the Republican Party.
  • Midwest German and Polish Catholics who are very conservative but not wedded to the Republic Party. They serve as swing voters in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri.
  • Hispanics, who are basically Democratic. In Morgan’s judgment, for Republicans to attract Hispanic votes, they should appeal to their more socially conservative side.
  • Cafeteria Catholics who, for the most part, have fallen away from the Church.

Despite the geographical and ethnic changes in the Church in America, expect the faithful to continue to have a major impact at polling booths. 

 
 
 
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