The Catholic Thing
The Catholic Voter: An Overview Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 05 September 2012

Thanks again to all of you who have answered the call and sent a donation for our ongoing work at
The Catholic Thing. As one donor just wrote me: “My day would not be complete without my morning dose of TCT. Thank you, Robert Royal and company for every contribution to the public discourse, especially during these trying times. You are in my prayers!” I’m not just talking when I say that expressions of support like this really help keep us at our task with renewed purpose. We realize times are tight for everyone, but it’s simply impossible to bring you the high quality material you see here everyday without reader support. And look: today you have the benefit of George Marlin’s decades of work on the American Catholic voter to guide you through a subject almost no one knows much about. George does, though, and after you read this introduction to his larger study, which will be available at Complete Catholicism and the Faith & Reason Institute websites later this month, you can click here (or on the ad below) to get a glimpse into the history of the Catholic vote in Wisconsin, a key swing state. Reports on other states will appear soon. At the moment, we can’t predict, any more than anyone else can, what will happen in these key states where Catholics are a significant presence. But after you’ve read these brief studies, you’ll know a lot more about how Catholics have made and continue to make a difference in our public life.

And don’t forget that you can make a difference too – through your support. Please, take a moment right now and donate to the work of The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal


Historically, Catholics have been a pivotal swing vote that has determined outcomes in numerous national, state, and local elections. In the close contest of 2012, they are likely to make the difference of who will be sworn in as president on January 24, 2013.

During the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, the Democratic Party endorsed several key Catholic social principles, simultaneously appealing to Northern urban Catholic immigrants and Southern agrarian Protestant nativists.  Then in 1928, the first Catholic Democrat presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith, brought out Catholic immigrant voters in record numbers.

Smith carried America’s those largest cities by a plurality of 38,000, whereas the 1920 and 1924 Democratic presidential candidates lost those cities by 1.6 million and 1.2 million votes respectively.  Most importantly, the inner-city Catholic voters started a new shift in the balance of political power in the United States.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the importance of those votes, and they became the basis of his coalition.  FDR was elected four times with the strong support of Roman Catholics, who were basically supportive of the New Deal programs. In 1948 his successor, Harry Truman, running on an anti-Communist platform, received about 80 percent of the Catholic vote and won with 49.5 percent against Dewey’s 45.2 percent overall. Catholics took great pride in their anti-Communism; it made them feel more part of the mainstream in America in fighting that battle.

In the 1960 presidential race, the nation’s second Catholic Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, was saved by the Catholic urban vote in the rich electoral states of the Northeast and Midwest.  In these regions, he carried over 80 percent of the Catholic vote.

As Michael Barone has argued, Kennedy “split the nation along religious lines, which is to say cultural lines, not along lines of economic class.”  Put another way, Kennedy’s election was not a victory for liberalism. It was a victory for Catholicism.

But the Democratic Party also started to emerge as the home for ambitious social engineering. Its cultural elitism and contempt for blue-collar Catholic workers and their values engendered a new generation who approached those voters with an attitude of “noblesse oblige,” of moral self-righteousness, sometimes of outright arrogance.

As a result, in the late 1960s there was a shift in the Catholic vote.  Catholics turned to Republicans who were socially conservative, supportive of the New Deal programs, but critical of the Great Society.  They became known as Nixon and Reagan Democrats. And since 1972, every White House winner has carried a majority of the Catholic vote.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign focused on Catholics, particularly Hispanics and Catholics living in areas hard hit by the recession.  This selective strategy worked.  Clinton won with a plurality of only 43 percent of the vote by carrying heavily Catholic states in the Northeast and Midwest.

Almost 3 million Catholic voters deserted Bush in 1992 – mostly nonpracticing “cafeteria” Catholics.  Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 carried cafeteria Catholics by wide margins; practicing Catholics voted for Republicans.

In 2004, President George W. Bush’s camp was willing to concede the cafeteria Catholics, but not practicing or Hispanic Catholics.  To appeal to thesegroups, Bush reversed pro-abortion executive orders, proposed faith-based initiatives and limits on stem-cell research.  He also signed into law a ban on partial-birth abortion.

As a result, Bush carried an outright majority of Catholics over Sen. John Kerry, a baptized Catholic.

In 2004, practicing Catholics were the decisive factor in several swing states.  In Ohio, for instance, 65 percent of them voted for Bush, and in Florida the president’s support from practicing Catholics reached 66 percent. Working-class Catholics, many of whom were of Eastern European origins, stuck with the president because they agreed with him on cultural and moral issues.  These issues were more important to them then their economic woes.

Even in Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts, one of America’s bluest states, there was a significant shift in the Catholic vote. In 2000, Catholics for Bush totaled 32 percent of the state’s electorate;  in 2004 his total was 49 percent. In raw numbers this increase represented 166,000 additional Catholic votes for Bush in Massachusetts (622,000 versus 456,000 in 2000).


In the election of 2004, Catholics were part of a growing voting population who considered the moral and cultural issues the most important factor in their choice: 22 percent of the voting population in 2004.  The power of this block explains in part the increased support for George Bush as well as the overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriages in eleven state referenda.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s strategy to paint Obama as an out-of-touch elitist who could not relate to the concerns of blue-collar Catholics paid off.  In the Rust Belt states, she carried these voters by huge majorities – 70 percent in Pennsylvania.

In the 2008 general election, however, Barack Obama, despite being the most extreme pro-abortion presidential candidate in American history, managed to carry 55 percent of the generic Catholic vote.  Pro-life Republican Senator McCain received 45 percent of the generic Catholic vote, 52 percent of church attendees, and 32 percent of the Hispanic vote.

In the rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, many practicing Catholics simply stayed home.  The state of the economy angered many who did not support Obama, but remained unmoved by McCain.  These GOP losses, among Catholics, were self-inflicted.  The McCain campaign failed to paint a vivid and appealing social and economic vision for America.

Two years later, in the 2010 mid-term elections, Catholics changed direction:  53 percent voted Republican.  They provided the votes needed to defeat one Congressional Democratic incumbent in Indiana, and four each in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Flipping these closely-contested seats was the sine qua non of the GOP master plan to retake the House, and Catholics provided the margins of victory.

Twenty pro-abortion Catholics did not return to the House in January 2011, including three members of the infamous Stupak Five who caved in on Obamacare: Stupak (D-Michigan), who retired, and Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) and Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pennsylvania), who were defeated by pro-lifers.

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama received the highest percentage of votes cast for a Democrat (52.9%) since Lyndon Johnson‘s (61.1%) victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Recent polls, however, indicate that many of his vote totals, particularly in the nation’s heartland and several southern states, were an aberration – as they were in 1964.  A study commissioned by the Pew Research Center and released on August 23, concluded that many white middle class and blue-collar voters, particularly Catholic ones, are trending back toward the GOP.  My analysis of the toss up states with large Catholic voting populations confirms these trends.

Pew Center Poll
Party Identification with Leaners Among Registered Voters
Total Catholic
White Catholic
Hispanic Catholic

Political analysts agree the fall presidential race will be determined primarily by the economically-depressed rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, where aging Catholics are disproportionately represented.  Their numbers are higher than in other states because their children and grandchildren – many of whom are non-practicing “cafeteria” Catholics – have moved to more economically prosperous regions.

Most of these working class Catholics subscribe to traditional Judeo-Christian principles, live them in their daily lives and expect the same of public officials.  Their beliefs mean more than material gain and transcend economic issues.

And in a close election, these Catholic voters, who cast their ballots according to cultural standards still matter.  It is they who will determine which man will be sworn in as president on January 20, 2013 – just as they have in every election since 1972.

    Generic Catholic Vote 1972 – 2004
   1972 Nixon 52%
    1976 Carter 57%
       1980 Reagan 47%*
     1984 Reagan 61%
 1988 Bush 51%
       1992 Clinton 44%*
     1996 Clinton 54%
 2000 Bush 51%
 2004 Gore 52%
     2008 Obama 55%

*Plurality Victory

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic VoterHis most recent book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 05, 2012
There seems to be a growing disillusionment with electoral politics in all western democracies.

Following the French presidential elections in April and May this year, there was much speculation in the media about the missing 205 - the one in five of the electorate who did not vote and who obviously felt he outcome of the election was irrelevant to their lives and their concerns.

One can only speculate as to whether this pattern will be repeated in the US this November
written by Rob, September 05, 2012
You cannot be a faithful Catholic Christian and vote for Barack Obama. If you begin with just the two fundamental issues, 1). those matters involving abortion and those that defy natural law, God's law, when speaking of homosexual "marriage," an impossible thought despite what any judge might have ruled. That is enough for a faithful Catholic to say "NO" to Obama or for that matter, any Democrat. Their record precedes them. Further, I find it laughable, almost hysterical, that the circus in Charlotte would be so delusional to say "we are better off today that 4 years ago."
The statistics are so stunning that only a professional KoolAid drinker could be in "sheep" mode beyond imagination.
So, you can be a Catholic. You can be a Democrat. You just cannot be both. Anyone pretending otherwise is a fraud, a charlatan, Yes, in the same manner as the Great Narcissist, Barack Obama.
written by Joe, September 05, 2012
America ought to be a nation of individuals as once envisioned by the Founder but now more than ever it is defined by identity politics. The "Catholic vote" Mr. Marlin attempts to break down is anything but monolithic given the deep schisms within it he alludes to.

Corporatism is nothing new. In 1881, Pope Leo XIII commissioned theologians and social thinkers to study corporatism and provide a definition for it. In 1884 in Freiburg, the commission declared that corporatism was a "system of social organization that has at its base the grouping of men according to the community of their natural interests and social functions, and as true and proper organs of the state they direct and coordinate labor and capital in matters of common interest."

In the religious sphere alone, at least 12 groups have been identified including the so-called "Christian Right," which is said to vote en bloc, along with others.

In other realms there are countless special interest groups lumped variously as "minorities," "gays," "the Jewish vote," "the Latino vote," "the Tea Party," "the African-American vote," ad nauseum. Historian Arthur Schlesinger sharply focused on identity politics in his book, "The Disuniting of America."

As the nation continues to fracture and splinter into a array of self-interests, democracy's goal of finding a common basis for society and culture to function becomes ever more elusive.

Perhaps even more instructive were the views of philosopher Eric Hoffer whose book, "The True Believer" shed much light on mass movements and the need of peoples to identify with others of similar beliefs for such things as self-esteem and the promise of a glorious future. Such systems worked very well in Nazi Germany for several years and in communism for much more, and now mass movements are shaping American political, social and economic life. Inevitably the result is increasing tribalism as groups become more insular yet compete with others for power. As the line between public and private spheres continues to blur, the idea of individualism -- stressing "the moral worth of the individual" -- further erodes.

In ancient Sparta arguments were won simply by who shouted the loudest. Nothing has really changed in 2,500 years. One individual voice of reason cannot prevail against a chorus of dissonance and foolishness.

written by jsmitty, September 05, 2012
It looks to me that Catholics are a pretty accurate reflection of the voting breakdown of the nation as a whole. In every election you cited Catholics supported the winner by almost the same margin as the electorate generally (I would allow that perhaps they "swing" a bit more heavily than the nation as a whole but not too much).

Larger and more disturbing question here that Marlin doesn't address---does it really make any sense to speak of a Catholic vote at all anymore, since Catholics in aggregate are more than any other large voting bloc representative of the partisan makeup of the country as a whole?
written by jsmitty, September 05, 2012
PS...mistake made in the 2004 result showing Gore with 52%. I'm pretty sure Bush carried the "Catholic vote" that year over John Kerry.
written by Bangwell Putt, September 05, 2012
Re: Comment by Michael Paterson-Seymour. Readers who are concerned about voters' apathy will be interested in the analysis of Pierre Manent, whose article, "City, Empire, Church, Nation" appeared in City Journal. The article is at once a description of the situation in Europe and a warning for us as American citizens.
written by WSquared, September 05, 2012
Rob above has a point. One thing we really need to get a handle on is how much abortion is not a "religious" issue. It's one of natural law, and it hits at the very basic unit of society: the family. That has economic, social, and cultural consequences, particularly vis-a-vis the type of society and culture that respects women and human life that we say that we want. This is part of the price we pay for ignoring "Humanae Vitae" and it's not like we know "Rerum Novarum," either, and as such, we end up with a very truncated, and thus limited, idea of "social justice."
written by Dan Deeny, September 05, 2012
USA Today had a breakdown of Obama supporters on Tuesday. 60% of Catholics are Obama supporters. How can that be?
written by Howard Kainz, September 05, 2012
I discussed the reasons for the Catholic preference for Democrats in general and Obama in particular, in my June 7 article here, "The 'Catholics for Obama' Syndrome." The key to Catholic apathy seems to hinge on the sea-change regarding authority in the Church, in the aftermath of Humanae vitae. If it were not for this disregard of authority, the HHS mandate would be the "straw that broke the camel's back."

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author