Is There Still a “Catholic Vote?”

A deeper look into the much-talked-about "Catholic vote" and whether it still has an impact on presidential elections.

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Were there ever Catholic voting blocs in the United States? Yes.

Are there Catholic voting blocs today? Yes and no.

Let me explain.

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For most of the 20th century, there were monolithic blocs of urban Catholic voters who determined the outcomes of many Federal, State and local elections. These Catholics, whom Cardinal Timothy Dolan fondly calls “meat and potato” faithful, went to Mass on Sunday, obeyed the teachings of the Church, sent their children to Catholic schools, and joined Catholic fraternal societies. The parish was often the center of their lives.

They first demonstrated their polling-booth power in 1928, when they came out in droves to vote for one of their own—the Democratic candidate for president, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York. The 67.5 percent turnout of eligible voters in 1928 was 10.9 percent more than 1924. This surge was due to the “Great Awakening” of Catholic voters who cast more than 80 percent of their votes for Smith. While Smith lost the election due to anti-Catholic bigotry, he left his mark on the political battlefield. Thanks to the outpouring of Catholic voters, Smith was the first Democrat to carry America’s 12 largest cities.

Governor Smith’s successor in Albany, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, eyeing a presidential run in 1932, realized he needed urban Catholic voters to carry him over the finish line. To achieve that end, he befriended and consulted leading prelates, particularly Chicago’s Cardinal George Mundelein and, in New York, Cardinal Patrick Hayes and, later, Archbishop Francis Spellman. Catholics overwhelmingly supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and his subsequent elections for president. During the early days of the New Deal, many bishops and Catholic intellectuals voiced support for FDR’s programs and argued they were consistent with traditional Catholic social thought and with positions expressed in recent papal encyclicals.

In 1948, when President Harry Truman was running against Republican Thomas Dewey and Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, and was considered an underdog, he advanced a plan based on his strong anti-communist credentials to capture the Catholic vote. One important date in his plan was March 17, 1948. At the annual Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner in New York City, over four thousand men in tuxedos gathered to honor their patron saint and hear the keynote speaker, President Harry Truman. The presiding cleric, Francis Cardinal Spellman, warmed up the crowd with a rousing anti-communist speech. Truman followed the cardinal and, playing to his audience, bluntly stated: 

I do not want and I will not accept the political support of Henry Wallace and his Communists. If joining them or permitting them to join me is the price of victory, I recommend defeat. These are days of high prices for everything but any price for Wallace and his Communists is too much for me to pay. I’m not buying period.

Thanks to the overwhelming support of anti-communist Catholics, Truman defied the pundits and was elected to a full term.

In the 1950s, the Catholic vote shifted somewhat because the Democratic party in major cities emerged as the home for Leftist social engineers. And the hero of these ideologues was the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson—a self-proclaimed egghead. Taking advantage of the Democratic party’s internal struggle and the restlessness of inner-city Catholics, the Republican Party, led by Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Senator Joe McCarthy, made a major play to win the Catholic vote using the anti-communist issue.

It is estimated over three million Catholic voters switched to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Ike received about 46 percent of the Catholic vote. In 1960, most Catholics came back to the Democratic fold to vote for one of their own: John F. Kennedy. Sixty-seven percent of Catholics who supported Eisenhower in 1956 swung to Kennedy and boosted his total share of the Catholic vote to 78 percent.

In the late 1960s, the crack-up of the Catholic voting bloc began due to a brewing cultural revolt in America. Throughout the ’60s, social engineers were advancing their secular agendas not only in the Democratic Party but in the Roman Catholic Church as well. In the aftermath of Vatican II, zealous young liberal bishops interpreted John XXIII’s “aggiornamento” as a call to completely dismantle the social foundations of the Church in America. 

Unrest in the nation’s cities and campuses, the sexual revolution, the failure of the Great Society to ameliorate inner-city tensions, and a sense of futility about the Vietnam War caused many Catholic Democrats—particularly World War II and Korean War veterans—to look elsewhere for leadership that addressed their concerns. Those Catholics turned to Richard Nixon, whom they perceived as the protector of their interests, traditions, and cultural mores. Nixon, in 1972, was the first Republican to receive a majority of the Catholic vote: 52 percent; and, in 1984, Ronald Reagan garnered 62 percent of their votes.

However, during the last 40 years, American Catholics as a monolithic voting bloc has crumbled. The reasons? First and foremost, the passing of World War II and Korean War veterans—aka Nixon and Reagan Democrats. In 1945, there were 16 million men in uniform. As of this writing, there are only 116,000 WWII veterans living. My 96-year-old father, who joined the Marines in 1944 and was wounded in the South Pacific, is the young side of the World War II veteran. As for the 6.8 million Korean War veterans, approximately 767,000 are alive. The median age of these veterans is 84 years, and they are dying at a rate of 300 a day.

Second, a huge subset of the past three generations of baptized Catholics do not practice their faith, let alone know the teachings of their faith. (Many cannot recite the Our Father.) These nonpracticing Catholics skew generic voting polls and give the appearance that Catholics have generally gone with the winner.

Generic Catholic Exit Polling


But generic Catholic polling is a false narrative. The real story is how practicing Catholics vote. Generic Catholic polling is a false narrative. The real story is how practicing Catholics vote.Tweet This

A Pew report indicates that a large majority of white, practicing Catholics vote differently from nonpracticing ones of all races. In 2016, they cast 64 percent of their votes for Trump, versus 31 percent for Hillary Clinton. In 2020, 57 percent stayed with Trump and 42 percent went with Biden—a baptized Catholic.

While practicing Catholics comprise only 6 percent of the voting population, contrary to the claims of many pundits their vote still matters. Why? Because a large subset of older and retired practicing Catholics—including World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans—live in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. And in a tightly contested election, they can and have provided the margin of victory for their presidential candidate.

I have been following voting habits in the top 40 Catholic nonurban counties in the four rust belt states for over 20 years. What I have learned is that in almost every presidential election, those counties were carried by the pro-life, culturally conservative candidate. The only exception in many of them was during the 2008 “Great Recession.” Angry over the economic devastation, and unimpressed with Republican John McCain, a slim majority cast their votes for Barack Obama.

To illustrate my point, the following depicts the results of the last six presidential elections in two typical rust belt counties in the heavily Catholic and economically depressed western portion of Pennsylvania:

Elk County

(60% Catholic and 98% White)


Cambria County

(70% Catholic and 96% White)


In 2016, Donald Trump carried these two counties handily, outpolling both McCain and Romney. Remarkably, he did better in 2020 running against Biden. There were similar results in the top Catholic counties in the other closely-contested Midwestern states.

However, while those Catholic counties put Trump over the top in 2016, and came out for him in force in 2020, Trump went down narrowly in three of the four rust belt states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The reason: suburban Republicans, who are more centrist, deserted him. Many stayed home, and some voted for Biden.


If there is a Trump-Biden rematch this Fall, once again, the battleground will be the Midwestern swing states. For Trump to garner 270 electoral votes, he must carry those states. The bad news for Trump: in the past four years, a portion of those Catholic voters have died or retired to sunshine states. 

Cambria County Population Trends

Year# of Residents

Elk County Population Trends

Year# of Residents

The population declines in these two counties are emblematic of the other 38 counties I follow.

What does this mean? In the Midwestern swing states, Trump must gin up the remaining faithful Catholic voters and bring back suburban Republicans to the fold by curtailing his loudmouth antics.

As for the future of the electoral strength of practicing Catholics, the fact is their numbers are declining every year, as is their impact on election outcomes. Sadly, the 2024 presidential election may very well be the “Last Hurrah” for Catholics whose vote is based on the teachings of their Church.


  • George J. Marlin

    George J. Marlin is the author/editor of 14 books including The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact and Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man. His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, New York Post, National Review, Newsday, The Washington Times and the New York Daily News.

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