Phase II of the Catholic Voter Project: The Heart of the Catholic Voter—Style Counts


In the first phase of the groundbreaking report on the Catholic voter (November 1998), Crisis profiled that powerful, but notoriously finicky, voter bloc. The striking fact the report revealed is that Catholic voting patterns are not as hard to pin down as conventional wisdom once suggested—that is, once you remove voters who keep the label “Catholic” merely as a cultural identifier. Once active Catholics—those who attend Mass once a week or more—are separated from their inactive brethren, the growing migration of churchgoing Catholics to conservative habits of voting comes into clear focus. But several questions remain: Why is this migration occurring? What kind of language can conservatives use to ease Catholics’ way into the fold? And how can they be led to support public policy that is consistent with church teaching?

Crisis commissioned the Washington polling firm, QEV Analytics, to ask Catholics in America these questions. The answers, we found, have as much to do with presentation as with policy. The report indeed confirms that churchgoing Catholics are aware of America’s moral deterioration and that they believe certain federal policies are exacerbating that moral decline; we also confirmed that these same Catholics do not respond favorably, for instance, to candidates who paint their opponents as villains and who employ reflexively antigovernment rhetoric.

The articles that follow are based on Phase II of the Catholic Voter Project. William McGurn looks at what the findings mean for the two major political parties as we enter the 2000 election cycle in “Party Favors.” Steven Wagner’s “Social Renewal Catholics,” adapted from the QEV report, analyzes the Catholic voter’s response to the political and cultural crises of the day and puts a name to the newest potential coalition in politics: the social renewal constituency. Finally, Senator Rick Santorum makes the case that the welfare reform legislation of 1996 is an example of how this constituency’s concerns translate into good public policy.



Ted Dore could be any one of millions of third-generation American Catholics. Raised by hard-working parents who to this day remain registered Democrats, Dore figured out he was a Republican early on. “When I was in high school my parents were Reagan Democrats,” he says. “So I guess I figured, ‘Why bother being a Reagan Democrat when I can be a Reagan Republican?’

For Dore, the affiliation stuck. Married with three kids, the former Navy officer is active in his local parish, where his children go to school, and he is active in the larger community as well. Pro-life and fiscally conservative, Dore says he finds he is much more political than friends who are not church-going Catholics. Indeed, his party commitment appears to be growing. He is now serving as treasurer for a ticket of conservative Republican town legislators trying to crack what he sees as an old-guard GOP establishment.

Bill Vita is typical of another set of post-Reagan Catholic voters, those not nearly as fixed as Dore. In college in 1976, he voted for Ted Kennedy in the Indiana Democratic primary, seeing Teddy as the successor to John and Robert Kennedy. His drift toward the Republican Party began in law school, when he says he began to see how “dogmatic and unyielding liberal professors and other students were, particularly regarding abortion.” And it continued during a stint as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, where he says the consequences of 30 years of Democratic Party rule had resulted in an underclass of dependent and socially pathological people.

But though Vita generally votes Republican even at the state and local levels, it remains a preference and not a settled conviction. He says he would consider voting for a Democrat he considered moral and honest, such as Bill Bradley, “because he at least takes stands based on his conscience, even though some of his positions are pretty liberal.”

The Elusive Catholic Voter

St. Paul speaks of looking through the glass darkly. On the eve of the third millennium, that’s a good metaphor for trying to decipher the maddening Catholic vote. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic elected president, it was easy: JFK swept into the White House with a near monolithic 83 percent of the Catholic vote. As the first Crisis survey on Catholic voting pat-terns reported in the November 1998 issue, the Catholic vote has long since splintered to the point where many political operatives believe that it is no longer even an identifiable bloc. In every presidential election since 1972, Catholics have gone for the winning ticket. If the Catholic vote is equivalent to the majority vote, what makes them distinctive?

We are still far from a definitive answer, perhaps because Catholic voters are themselves in flux. On the one hand, any Democrat looking at the numbers would have to be worried about the clear and steady disenchantment with a party that started with Jack Kennedy but has ended up with Ted Kennedy. On the other hand, many of those who no longer consider themselves faithful Democrats have not yet found a home in the Republican Party, though Ronald Reagan did capture a majority of active Catholics, winning the most in the 1984 elections. But the dramatic drop-off in the failed presidential bids of George Bush and Bob Dole suggests that however much Catholics may feel disaffected with Democrats, they still sit uneasily in the GOP living room.

The two Crisis surveys thus come at a critical time in American politics. The question of a discernible Catholic vote comes in the thick of two increasingly contentious arguments: a general reconsideration of the proper role of religion in civic life and an internal Republican debate about the proper role of religion in the party. If we are to believe the results from the first CRISIS survey, active Catholics—roughly, those who attend Mass each week—not only show up as decidedly more conservative than their less practicing counterparts but are also attracted to the Republican Party (or find themselves repelled by the Democratic Party) precisely for moral reasons—most notably, but not exclusively, abortion. This newest survey puts some flesh on the bones, giving us some clues about what kind of conservatism they do embrace and what it might take for a party to attract them to the fold.

The survey aims to do this by distinguishing between two broad Catholic moral visions: “social-justice Catholics”—those who believe that America has not provided opportunity to minorities and the poor, that there ought to be preferences for race and gender in hiring, that government is the first place to look for solutions, and that tolerance is a virtue needed more today than courage. The survey consistently finds about a third of Catholics falling into this category. But the results also define the larger percentage of Catholics as “social- renewal Catholics”—those who believe that private solutions are better than government ones, who oppose quotas and preferences in hiring, who think the American experiment has been largely good to minorities and the poor, and who find courage in short supply. These may well be useful sociological tags in getting at the character and worldview of today’s American Catholic, and they are discussed more fully in Steven Wagner’s article in this issue.

Do I Contradict Myself?

However, let’s leave those two tags aside for the moment and fix on the hard data themselves. What we find is that Catholics appear to give contradictory responses. On general questions of philosophy, Catholics sound much like moderate New Dealers. They report, for example, that our problems are caused by too much freedom rather than too little, that they want a government to do more rather than just leave them alone, that they are strongly in favor of boosting the minimum wage, and that people are happier when they are responsible for others rather than when they are free to do what they want. Clearly this is not the soil for rugged individualism.

But in politics, general questions tell us very little. What matter are specifics, and when pinned on specifics, Catholics yield a far more complicated picture. Though they do not talk of government with the instinctive distrust that characterizes much conservative discussion, by an overwhelming majority (60 percent to 20 percent) they say that the federal government is today doing more to hurt than to help the moral climate in America. By a similar margin, they report that the popular culture—television, music, movies—is undermining the character and values of young people. By an even greater margin they oppose special preferences for minorities (67 percent to 21 percent). And on the whole, they agree that evangelical involvement in politics is a good thing. Even more tellingly, the margins widen when inactive Catholics are factored out, exposing some pretty decisive fault lines.

Some analysts see this as a mandate for a small “c” conservative, i.e., a sort of moderate, Republicanism. On the surface at least, even the responses on abortion tend to support this interpretation. Though Catholics oppose abortion and feel it is almost always morally wrong (80 percent), they do not favor legal restrictions by nearly the same margin. And the attitudes about government and the minimum wage sound more Democratic than Republican. But the record of how Catholics have in fact voted shows just the opposite. In practice it has been the most conservative of Republicans, like Ronald Reagan, who attract Catholics, not the middle-of-the-roaders like Bob Dole or George Bush. Neither is Reagan the odd exception. In the 1994 congressional elections, Catholics went for a Republican Congress for the first time in history. For the first time, too, Catholics constituted the largest single grouping of Republican congressmen.

Clearly there is something new afoot. In the fourth estate, where I labor, the war within the Republican Party is largely thought to be between economic and social conservatives, the feeling being that Reagan had somehow magically cobbled together two opposed factions united only by the Cold War. Yet this, too, is a mischaracterization. The real battles almost always pit an entrenched GOP establishment against conservatives, social or economic. Bob Dole not only seemed embarrassed by his party’s pro-life plank, he was bad on taxes.

True, there are conservative Republicans like Pat Buchanan who are pro-life and hostile to trade, just as there are the Jennifer Dunns who favor market economics but are pro-choice. In general, however, and especially compared with both a Republican establishment and a Democratic opposition, the economic and social conservatives are more often on the same side of the fence. Even on the contentious issue of abortion, pro-choice Republicans generally do not favor—as Democrats do—using taxpayer money to fund abortions. And though social conservatives may thump for things like sanctions on China, generally they do not support the big-government spending initiatives, as moderate Republicans and Democrats do.

Catholic Tradition or Tradition of Catholics

If I am right, where this takes us is not so much politics as culture, specifically language. In essays in learned journals, it is all well and good to quote de Tocqueville about the organic compatibility between the natural law tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and the natural theology of America’s founding documents; I do it myself” But we wouldn’t have Shakespeare if everyone understood their real compatibilities and interests. In practice, the Catholics who came to America were not Jeffersonian plantation owners but impoverished immigrant masses. Orestes Brownson, the flinty Yankee convert whose grave I used to walk over to communion during my student days at Notre Dame, was forever drawing a distinction between the tradition of Catholics and the Catholic tradition. We tend to debate the latter. But politics tends to be determined by the former.

That tradition, the actual tradition of Catholics in America, has been flavored by a pronounced, historical distrust of the Republican Party as the party of the rich and well connected. Democrats, after all, formed the party that nominated Al Smith, that elected JFK, and that still boasts the most well-known Catholic names in American politics: the Kennedys, the Cuomos, the Dodds, etc. The Republican Party, by contrast, at least in this century, has two prongs that make Catholics uncomfortable. The most venerable of these is the genteel, anti-Catholic New England establishment Edwin O’Connor captured in The Last Hurrah. Though much of the sharp anti-Catholicism has diminished, this segment of the party remains the most antagonistic toward the moral concerns that attract Catholics to the Republican Party in the first place, not the least of which is abortion.

High-church Toryism has long since fled the Republican Party (not to mention the Episcopal Church). But it has been replaced by a group that is even more troubling—and even more contradictory. This is the evangelical Protestant wing, demonized in the press and still distrusted by American Catholics, notwithstanding large swaths of overlap in terms of issues and priorities. As I wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal about the first Crisis survey, though the press treatment of evangelicals represents a vicious caricature, it is a caricature “facilitated by the combination of what one writer calls the ‘Southern captivity’ of the GOP leadership and the often apocalyptic idiom” of many evangelical Republicans.

The truth is that for all the ecumenical strides by Catholics and evangelicals, the cultures do not mix; their churches are organized differently; their morality rests on different authorities (Scripture vs. nature); and Catholics perceive a still-extant anti-Catholicism. Indeed, many evangelicals find it hard to concede that Catholics are even Christian.

Thus the political answer pursued by Ralph Reed and others—people who understood that, without large chunks of the Catholic vote, evangelical political efforts would come to naught—was to forge more cooperation. Certainly that remains a theological imperative. But it has proved a political flop: One need only look at the ultimate divorce between the Catholic Alliance and the Christian Coalition to see that. The key to understanding these failures again lies in language and culture. Specifically it gets to the heart of something Francis Cardinal George of Chicago has noted: “Citizens of the United States are, in a certain sense and despite enormous diversity among us, culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” What he means is that the language of the American founding is at heart a Protestant one. No surprise there, for we owe many of the impulses that led to limited government and the related ideas of contract and covenant to the Reformation.

Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Unfortunately, the evangelical wing no longer speaks this language. And the secular culture speaks no moral language, save an empty relativism. Instead, the evangelical vision rests almost exclusively on Scripture—at least in its public utterances. Perhaps conscious of their own minority status, Catholic voters are nowhere near as vehement as their evangelical brothers and sisters. That shows up most in the areas of concern they share, as again this survey makes clear. Despite similar moral disapproval of abortion, adultery, and homosexuality, Catholics are not nearly as fervent about translating this into law Indeed, homosexuality may be the best example. Clearly the survey shows that only a fifth of Catholics find it acceptable. Unlike evangelicals, however, they do not favor a jihad against gays themselves.

This is not a problem of timidity, as has also been suggested. The two numbers that jump out from the survey are the 75 percent of Catholics who say there is a crisis of declining individual morality today and the 67 percent who say that the solution lies more in courage than in tolerance. Again these are things that rise up as we move up the scale of religious activity, and they bespeak a hunger for a Republican Party that knows its mind on moral issues, that is righteous without being self-righteous. This latter is of paramount importance. In his 1995 book, Active Faith, Ralph Reed counseled, “Calling gays ‘perverts’ or announcing that AIDS is ‘God’s judgment’ on the gay community is not consistent with our Christian call to mercy” What he meant was that it was not consistent with the American electorate. If I had to characterize the dilemma, it is between a Catholic philosophy—one rooted in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”—and an evangelical theology, based on Jesus and personal salvation.

This, of course, is precisely what Ronald Reagan gave us. Kate O’Beirne of National Review speaks tongue-in-cheek when she suggests that many Catholics probably assumed Reagan was Catholic, but there is something to that, even leaving aside his most famous role as the Gipper and the fact of an Irish Catholic father. Reagan surrounded himself with Catholics who were as comfortable with him as he was with them: Alexander Haig, Bill Casey, Frank Shakespeare, John Sears, William Clark, etc. And his demeanor had an easygoingness and self-deprecating character with which the evangelical Republican community does not appear overburdened.

It made for a powerful combination. For while Reagan’s demeanor and tone were Catholic, his core beliefs were bedrock Protestant: the virtues of hard work, the moral danger posed by big government, the justness of enterprise, and the undiminished certitude that God made men to be free and made America to prove it. His most famous metaphor, invoked incessantly in the 1980 campaign but linked with Reagan throughout his career, was John Winthrop’s shining “city on a hill,” invoked in a sermon aboard the Arabella as the Puritans prepared to settle the new land.

In political terms, what might otherwise have been perceived as harsh and Yankee was leavened both by Reagan’s admiration for FDR’s substantial understanding of the public need for optimism and by a temperament that stressed that problems could be met. In his farewell address to the nation, he said “They call it the Reagan Revolution, and I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like a Great Rediscovery: a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.” And a rediscovery it was, not only of the moral values and precepts that undergird the American founding but also of the confidence that even ordinary men and women could appreciate those values if someone bothered to speak to them.

Not the least of this achievement was persuading American Catholics of the merits of a market approach at odds with a Catholic and Democratic tradition that has, until recently, tended to define community as government. Doubtless, on the bald questions of Reagan’s economic agenda, many Catholics would probably have qualms. But by weaving it into the fabric of his moral vision—the moral soundness of free Americans making their own decisions—Reagan effectively wove his own seamless garment. This shows up more clearly in retrospect, highlighted by two GOP successors, Bush and Quayle, who failed in their use of the tax issue precisely because they presented it as a gimmick rather than a manifestation of a larger belief in the virtues of small government and the dignity of human earning.

Family Factor

So where does this leave us? In 1992 Reader’s Digest commissioned a fascinating poll that uncovered a wide gulf in attitudes between families with children and those without children, constituting what the Digest called “a mass counterculture.” In a similar vein, Wirthlin Worldwide found that the much-heralded gender gap does not exist for married women between 18-45.

It appears that active Catholic voters are part of this counterculture, and that their demand for courage represents hunger for a real leader. But the message of the survey suggests that politicians who would court the Ted Dores and Bill Vitas—not to mention their sisters, wives, mothers, and coworkers—need to focus as much on tone and context as on actual policy.

And Ronald Reagan is by no means the only master. I recall reading, years ago, of an account of the 1982 gubernatorial elections in New York, pitting conservative Lew Lehrman against Mario Cuomo, he of “personally-opposed-but” fame. At a gathering that was heavily dominated by Italian-Americans, Lehrman said that he represented them more faithfully than Cuomo. Cuomo replied, in Italian, “Non lo credo“—I don’t believe it. To this day I believe Lehrman, who in fact converted to Catholicism shortly afterward, was right. And over the years many of those in the crowd who endured the Cuomo years may have since come to agree.

But it was Cuomo who won, the debate as well as the election.


  • William McGurn

    William McGurn is an American writer. He was the chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from June 2006 until February 2008, replacing Michael Gerson. McGurn served as the chief editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal. From 1992 to 1998, McGurn served as the senior editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Prior to this he was the Washington bureau chief of National Review. He writes the Main Street column at The Wall Street Journal and is an executive at its parent company, News Corporation. On Dec. 11, 2012, he was named editorial page editor of the New York Post.

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