The Disappearing White Catholic Voter

For over seventy years, white blue-collar Catholics who have lived and worked in America’s once great industrial states were the voting bloc that provided the margins of victory for Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes. The 2012 election results, however, indicate these Catholics no longer have that kind of clout at the ballot box.

Why? First of all, they are an aging group whose numbers are declining every year. About 650 Catholic World War II and Korean War veterans die every day. That translates into 950,000 in the last four years. Add spouses and the number may easily have hit 2 million.

Next, the once solid Catholic vote is fractured beyond repair. Millions of grandchildren and great grandchildren of those aging Catholics have abandoned their faith and embraced secularism. Fifty-seven percent of white cafeteria Catholics cast their ballots for Obama in 2012. An equal percentage of practicing Catholics voted for Romney.

Finally, in recent years a subset of blue-collar Catholics have dropped out of the work force for no apparent reason (Charles Murray examines this phenomena in Coming Apart: The State of White America). Some live with their folks, collect unemployment benefits, and occasionally grab “off the books” jobs. They refuse to become responsible adults and soak up a living from poverty programs. These Catholics typically either don’t vote or support big government candidates.  

For all these reasons, plus the fact that Obama’s campaign devoted huge resources to identifying and turning out its base (and convinced former supporters to sit out the election  8.3 million 2008 white voters did not cast a ballot this year), Romney lost all the Rust Belt states with large Catholic populations:

Pennsylvania (35 percent Catholic) – This was one to watch in 2012 because of its large white Catholic population (only 4 percent are Hispanic) and because it has the fourth oldest population in the nation. As William Galston of the Brookings Institute predicted last June: “Obama got 47 percent of the white Catholic vote in 2008; right now he has 37 percent. . .potentially a big deal in the Midwest. . . .despite the fact that Obama is now ahead in Pennsylvania, I don’t see how he carries Pennsylvania with white Catholic support at that level.”

In November, Romney received 50 percent of generic Catholic vote, down 2 percent from McCain’s 2008 percentage. White Catholics broke 56-44 percent for Romney. Obama carried nine of the top twenty Catholic counties, down two from 2008. But, in those counties, Romney’s total votes, vis–à–vis McCain’s, were down 40,192 (-2.6 percent). 

Turnout in Key Catholic Urban/Suburban Counties versus 2008


While Romney’s vote total was up in two of the counties, he managed to carry only Chester County, the smallest of the group.

Michigan (29 percent Catholic) – In his home state, Romney received 55 percent of the generic Catholic vote and 55 percent of white Catholics. He carried 12 of the top 20 Catholic counties. Four years earlier McCain received 46 percent and 51 percent respectively, and carried only 5 of the top Catholic counties. Obama’s total votes in those counties were down 69,339 votes (-8.3 percent) while Romney’s were up 29,635 votes (+4.45 percent). Nevertheless, this small shift was not nearly enough to put Romney over the top

Romney lost Michigan because he did not make serious inroads in densely populated Catholic counties. One-time Reagan Democrats in bellwether Macomb County stuck with Obama giving him 52 percent of their votes. In 2008 Obama received 53 percent. The Obama campaign’s message that Romney was a plutocrat who would shut down Michigan’s automobile industry worked.

Ohio (26 percent Catholic)  This must-win state went for Obama, 50.9 percent versus 49 percent for Romney.

Romney’s Catholic percentages improved over McCain’s by about 3 percent, but the total number of Catholics who went to the polls was down in 15 key counties, declining 3.6 percent (28,321 votes) compared to McCain. Meanwhile, Obama easily carried and maintained his margins in the densely populated heavily Catholic counties of Cuyahoga and Hamilton.

The Obama campaign convinced disenchanted white blue-collar Catholics to stay home on Election Day and while the black vote was down 1 million nationally their turnout in Ohio increased by 178,000.

Wisconsin (32 percent Catholic)  Thanks to favorite son Paul Ryan, this was the only Rust Belt state in which voter turnout increased.  Total votes cast in 2012 were up 86,092 (+2.68 percent) over 2008. Obama went down 2.9 percent and Romney up 11.6 percent.

Romney carried 56 percent of the generic Catholic vote and 57 percent of white Catholics (McCain got 53 percent and 52 percent, respectively). The Romney ticket also squeaked by in Ryan’s congressional district with 51 percent. (McCain, 48 percent).

Romney increased his vote totals over McCain’s in all but two top Catholic counties. He won 24 (versus 9 for McCain), but his vote total increase was only 63,266 out of 2.4 million cast. Romney’s gains were offset by Obama’s gains in the two most populated Catholic counties, Dane (Madison) and Milwaukee. The Obama campaign focused on its base and turned out more supporters than in 2008. Obama carried Wisconsin with 53 percent (56 percent in 2008).

Romney needed at least two of the states described here to win. He lost them all because, in my judgment, practicing Catholic voters were not persuaded to come out in force.

Romney’s numbers crunchers did not understand the importance of practicing Catholics in tightly contested Rust Belt states and did not effectively cultivate them. They were also afraid to advertise Romney’s anti-abortion stand and opposition to same-sex marriage to energize these Catholics. The Obama campaign exploited these errors. And let’s not forget the American bishops. Most of them failed to mobilize Catholics over religious liberty on Election Day.

Thus ends a once great force in America’s electoral politics: white Catholic voters. What a pity.

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.