Will PA Catholics Make the Difference?

With the Church making headlines almost daily over its defense of religious liberties and opposition to Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, there is a sudden interest in how these issues may influence the Catholic faithful when they enter the voting booth in November.

Recent surveys of Catholics-at-large, that is both practicing and nominal – or “cafeteria” – Catholics, indicate that President Obama, who got 54 percent of that vote in 2008, is losing ground. A Gallop poll released in early May, had Obama and Mitt Romney tied for the overall vote but with Romney drawing 62 percent of “very religious” Catholics.

As I’ve observed in earlier columns, the older Church-going Catholics will be the constituency that decides this year’s election because they are the most significant voting bloc in the key-swing states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

The state to watch is Pennsylvania, which is 35 percent Catholic and has twenty electoral votes. Even though no GOP presidential candidate has carried the state since 1984, it regularly swings Republican because it is packed with older practicing Catholics and Reagan Democrats who are socially conservative. 

In 2010, for instance, Republicans took control of the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion, gained one U.S. Senate seat and five Congressional seats, and majorities in both houses of the state legislature. This is a state that has also consistently elected pro-lifers: Democrat governor Robert Casey, Republican senators Rick Santorum and Pat Toomey, Democrat senator Robert Casey, Jr., and incumbent Republican governor, Tom Corbett.

Pennsylvania is difficult to call because of its diverse voting population. Most analysts agree that there are three voting demographics, each with a different world view. There are the very liberal cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their surrounding suburban counties. Next is central Pennsylvania’s rural NRA country whose populace is leery of the Democratic Party’s promise of government largesse. Finally there’s the economically depressed western portion of the state whose citizens are older and socially conservative.

In the 2004 election, George Bush lost the state with 48 percent but his share was up 2 percent over his 2000 showing. Most of Bush’s additional support came from Democrats. Nationally, 11 percent of Democrats voted for Bush in 2004 but in Pennsylvania the total was 15 percent.

In the election of 2004, many Pennsylvanians were part of a growing voting population who considered the moral and cultural issues the most important factor in their electoral decision-making process. Of the 18 percent of Pennsylvanians who were moral-values voters, 80 percent voted for Bush. 

Here’s proof that cultural issues took precedence over monetary ones for many Pennsylvanians: John Kerry carried three of the four richest counties –Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware. Bush squeaked by in one of them, Chester County.

Although Kerry narrowly carried the Pennsylvania generic Catholic vote, the affluent and younger “cafeteria” Catholics voted for Kerry; poorer, older, practicing Catholics in the economically depressed areas went for Bush.

Kerry carried the wealthiest Catholic counties: Bucks, Northampton, and Delaware. Bush carried the poorest counties and the top two Catholic ones – Cambria and Elk.

These Pennsylvania election results can only be explained in cultural terms. Pro-life, pro-gun,blue-collar Democrats living in poorer regions voted for Bush while pro-abortion, white-collar Republicans from affluent areas supported Sen. Kerry. Economics and class warfare had nothing to do with what these Pennsylvanians did in the voting booth.

In 2008, Obama carried the Keystone State with 3,060,455 votes (55 percent) versus John McCain’s 2,469,775 (45 percent) votes for a total of 5,530,230. Four years earlier, John Kerry received 2,938,095 votes (51 percent) to Bush’s 2,793,847 (48 percent) for a total of 5,731,942.

After all the fanfare about registration drives and record-breaking combined spending of the Obama and McCain camps ($5 million plus), total Pennsylvania votes cast were down 200,000, 3.61 percent versus 2004.

In Philadelphia, where the Obama people, ACORN, and the unions boasted about their get-out-the-vote juggernaut, there was a 10.1 percent decline over the 2004 turnout. Many voters in predominantly Catholic “South Philly” stayed home.

The Democrats did, however, continue to make inroads in the Philadelphia region’s suburban counties.  Obama carried seven of the ten most affluent counties by significant margins, versus only four for Kerry in 2004. Interestingly, this is the one subset of counties where turnout was above the 2004 levels. The old Main Line counties in particular have gotten bluer, which indicates they vote their liberal cultural values.

Although his margins of victory were down, McCain, like Bush, carried nine of the ten least affluent counties, which means these poor voters also vote along cultural lines. The difference was that in this sub-set of counties voter turnout declined. Many voters probably chose to stay home because they were disenchanted with the Republican Party, angry at Bush, or unhappy with McCain.

As for the Catholic vote, nationally Obama received 52 percent of the generic Catholics who went to the polls – a seven-point increase over baptized Catholic John Kerry’s total. But from practicing Catholics, McCain received 55 percent of their votes.

Catholic Pennsylvanians went against the national trend with 52 percent casting their vote for McCain, a 2 percent improvement over Bush. However, in the ten counties with the largest Catholic populations, voter turnout declined in eight of them – an additional sign of dissatisfaction with the GOP.

If Pennsylvania’s practicing Catholics, who are angry over Obama’s shabby treatment of their Church and his support of same-sex marriage, turn out to the polls as they did in 2010, they could put the state in the GOP presidential column for the first time in twenty-eight years – and provide the votes that will put Romney over the top in the electoral college.


George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.