The Heart of the Catholic Voter: Phase II of the Catholic Voter Project

In November 1998, Crisis published the results of the first phase of its Catholic Voter Project. “The Mind of the Catholic Voter,” by Robert Novak, chronicled Catholics’ exodus from the Democratic Party and their increasing tendency to adopt a conservative pattern of voting. The CRISIS study established that this movement was strongly correlated to frequency of church attendance and that these “active” Catholics— much more so than “inactive” Catholics—represent a true swing vote.

The question Crisis was not able to answer from its analysis of national exit polls and other survey data was why this migration was occurring. A national survey of 1,001 randomly selected Catholics was commissioned by Crisis to find an answer.

The results of this study add important dimensions to our observation that Catholic political opinion has shifted from its traditional home in the Democratic Party. Catholics are changing their political orientation because they perceive a nation in a moral crisis that has been fueled by popular culture and exacerbated by government and education. Catholics are moving away from their traditional social-justice orientation and adopting what can be termed a “social renewal” conservatism.

Catholics are still widely assumed to belong to the traditional Democratic base of voters. With the ongoing migration of Catholic voters to the middle and the right, the 2000 election will be interesting to watch. It will be mathematically impossible for a Democratic presidential nominee to be victorious while losing the Catholic vote by a significant margin. For example, if the 2,000 presidential election were held today and if the candidates were Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush, Bush would win among all Catholics by 45 percent to 27 percent (with 29 percent undecided or not saying), an 18-point spread. Among weekly Mass attendees, Bush wins 49 percent to 24 percent, a 25-point spread.

Crisis has already shown the geographic centrality and the electoral weight of the Catholic vote. A plurality of Catholic voters is found in the upper Midwest, a region that must be carried by whoever wins the presidency in 2000. In 1996, Clinton carried these states (Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky), while receiving 54 percent of Catholic votes cast nationwide, versus 38 percent for Bob Dole and 8 percent for Ross Perot.

According to our electoral vote modeling, had just 15 percent of the Catholic vote shifted to Dole—had he received 53 percent of the Catholic vote while everything else stayed the same—Dole would have been elected president. So far, Governor Bush is beating that mark by ten points. The question is, why?

Social-Justice Catholics

Liberal self-identification has been waning among active Catholics since at least 1960. Our survey shows that social-justice Catholics now constitute a minority of all Catholics. For our purposes, social-justice Catholics are characterized by:

+ criticism of America’s efforts to provide opportunities to minorities;

+ criticism of America’s efforts to aid the poor;

+ support for an activist government that does more to help people [like me];

+ support for hiring preferences based on race and gender;

+ the perception that America is more in need of tolerance than courage;

+ the rejection of subsidiarity (preferring to provide aid to the needy via national government);

+ support for multiculturalism, or at least an indifference to the cultural assimilation of immigrants;

+ self-identification as liberal.

Doubtless readers can come up with other characteristics. But two threads run through all these attitudes: 1) the perception that there is a class of victims excluded from fully participating in the benefits of the American economy and society; and 2) the belief that it is primarily the responsibility of government to help these classes of victims.

In sum, 35 percent of all Catholics have this social-justice orientation, and 9 percent are hard-core social-justice Catholics. But a majority (65 percent) stand in opposition to the social-justice agenda as we have defined it.

The aspect of the social-justice agenda that enjoys the broadest support among all Catholics is the desire for an activist government that “does more to help people [like me].” Fifty percent selected this option over the desire that “government just leave them alone” (selected by 40 percent). As we reported in the November issue of Crisis, Catholics in the main are not antigovernment. But the complete picture isn’t so simple: The survey also found that by the margin of three to one, Catholics believe the federal government is doing more to harm than to help the nation’s moral climate.

The survey gauged support for the principle of subsidiarity by asking if the poor are better off receiving the assistance they need directly from a government agency, or from churches and religious organizations. Roughly one- third selected the government option, which we took to be characteristic of the social-justice orientation. Thirty-six percent said churches were the better vehicle for providing assistance to the poor, and 30 percent said it “depends.”

By a large margin, Catholics are of the opinion the nation is more in need of courage to stand up for what is right than of tolerance for values other than our own. Tolerance is important to Catholics; they consistently exhibit this preference in their responses to other survey questions. For example, Catholics are more inclined than other religious groups to express positive sentiments toward virtually any segment of the population-minorities, homosexuals, immigrants, and so forth. But at this point in time, a large majority are of the view that courage, rather than tolerance, is the virtue in short supply. We consider this to be at odds with the social-justice orientation, on the grounds that moral pluralism is more typical of that orientation, and indeed, our statistical analysis bears this out.

Pluralism is also an element of the question on the assimilation of immigrants. Thirty percent tell us it is better for America if the different racial and ethnic groups that live here maintain their own distinct values and culture. But 52 percent say it is better for such groups to blend in by adopting American values and culture.

Catholics also consistently oppose hiring preferences to correct for past discrimination against minorities or women: 21 percent favor preferences, 67 percent oppose them. Preferences are opposed equally by Hispanic and white/non-Hispanic Catholics.

A plurality of all Catholics grade efforts to help the poor with a “C,” while 27 percent give a grade of “D” or “E” Fewer give our efforts to create opportunities for minorities a poor grade of “D” or “F” (15 percent); the average grade on this dimension is roughly a “B-.”

While a minority of Catholics fall into the social-justice constituency, social-justice Catholics are about equally prevalent among Mass-attending and inactive Catholics. Of Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly (this is 42 percent of our sample), 30 percent embrace the social justice agenda. Of Catholics who rarely if ever attend mass (fewer than 4 times in a typical month, 58 percent of our sample), 37 percent embrace the social justice agenda.

These numbers indicate it is probably not the decline in the social-justice sensibility among active Catholics that alone explains why there has been such dramatic change in their political behavior. Some other dynamic is afoot, to account for active Catholics becoming more conservative in their voting behavior.

Social-Renewal Catholics

That dynamic appears to be rooted in the emergence of a “social-renewal” constituency. These Catholics vividly register their perception that the United States is in the throes of a moral crisis. It is unlikely that this constituency would have been discernible back in 1960, because the critique of American society upon which it rests would have been virtually unknown.

As we understand them, social-renewal Catholics:

+ perceive a crisis of declining individual morality in America today;

+ believe the federal government is exacerbating this decline;

+ affirm an absolute standard of morality;

+ perceive the popular culture as undermining the character and values of our youth;

+ do not identify themselves as liberal;

+ reject the social-justice agenda, as defined above.

Among all Catholics, the social-renewal orientation is affirmed by 62 percent, revealing the much greater affinity Catholics have for this perspective than for the social-justice orientation. A bit more than a third of all Catholics (39 percent) are hostile to the social-renewal agenda.

Unlike the social-justice orientation, affinity for the social-renewal agenda is more prevalent among religiously active Catholics than among the inactive, being embraced by 71 percent of weekly Mass attendees versus 53 percent of Catholics who attend Mass less frequently.

The foundation of the social-renewal constituency is the perception of a deteriorating social environment in America today. This perception is widespread among all Catholics, as it is among all Americans. Three-fourths of all Catholics and 79 percent of religiously active Catholics perceive there to be a “crisis of declining individual morality affecting the nation today,” which is how we quantified the perception of moral deterioration.

A large majority of Catholics (60 percent) hold the view that the federal government is exacerbating our moral decline. Twenty percent say the federal government is helping the moral climate; 20 percent say either it is doing neither or they “don’t know”

There is even less ambiguity among Catholics about the role of the popular culture in our moral decline: 66 percent of all Catholics and 73 percent of active Catholics are of the opinion the popular culture is “seriously” undermining the character and values of our young people.

To summarize: Social-renewal Catholics are concerned about the nation’s moral direction; they believe that the federal government, public education, and popular culture are making things worse; and they hope that this moral deterioration can be stopped.

Catholic Libertarians

Catholic political orientation isn’t binary, with social-justice Catholics at one end of a continuum and social-renewal Catholics at the other. Even though the social-renewal constituency is partially defined by its opposition to the social-justice agenda, there is some overlap. Twelve percent are both social-justice and social- renewal Catholics, and 15 percent are neither. There is also a third dimension to the Catholic political consciousness: Catholic libertarians who are concerned with individual freedom and limited government.

Libertarianism is defined by four variables, two of which we have already discussed. One is the question of government activism, which yielded the finding that 50 percent of Catholics want the government “to do more to help people like them,” while 40 percent want government “to just leave them alone.” The latter response is indicative of this Catholic libertarianism (while the former was indicative of the social-justice agenda). The second question is the one regarding subsidiarity, with libertarians being found among those 36 percent who think the poor would be better off receiving their assistance from religious organizations rather than from the government.

A large majority of Catholics (61 percent) consider a person to be more likely to achieve happiness “when responsible for the well-being of other people” rather than when “free to do whatever they want” (the opinion of 29 percent). We take the latter response to be indicative of libertarianism.

On a related question, a plurality of Catholics (46 per-cent) said many of our problems today arise from having too much freedom rather than too little (31 percent). Again, the latter response is indicative of libertarianism.

Taken together, these questions suggest 41 percent of all Catholics have libertarian sympathies. This orientation is not related to religious activism, but it is certainly related to party affiliation: 59 percent of reliable Republican voters are libertarian, but just 32 percent of dependable Democrats. It seems that libertarian values account for the prior wave of Catholic migration to habits of voting for Republicans, which took place roughly from 1960 to 1976.

Catholic Swing Voters

Today, 21 percent of Catholics are dependable Democratic voters, 23 percent are reliable Republicans, but 39 percent are swing voters who cannot be taken for granted by either political party. Eighteen percent don’t vote.

The religiously active are characteristically more active in politics than are the religiously inactive, and are also more Republican. Of the religiously inactive, 21 percent are nonvoters, and dependable Democrats outnumber reliable Republicans 22 percent to 18 percent. Among the religiously active, just 12 percent are nonvoters, and reliable Republicans outnumber dependable Democrats 30 percent to 19 percent.

Thirty-four percent of all Catholics identify themselves as Democrats. The fact that there are fewer dependable Democrat voters reveals that many cling to the label while not voting the party line. Twenty-three percent of all Catholics (and 28 percent of the religiously active) are Republican. Thirty-six percent are Independents.

Confirming the exodus out of the Democratic Party evident from exit polls, 38 percent of current Independents and Republicans report they are former Democrats.

Of Catholics who report voting in the 1998 congressional elections (69 percent), 44 percent voted for the Democratic candidate and 36 percent voted for the Republican candidate. But religiously active Catholics split evenly (41 percent each) for the Democrat and Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in their district.

Of those who voted in the 1996 presidential election (77 percent), our survey results closely mirror the results of the exit polls of Catholic voters. Among all Catholic voters in our survey, Clinton got 48 percent, with 30 per-cent for Dole and 10 percent for Perot. Post-election surveys suggest that Dole narrowly edged out Clinton among religiously active Catholics; our survey finds 43 percent for Clinton and 38 percent for Dole among the religiously active. But then it is not unusual for the reported vote for the winner to increase over time.

Forty percent of all Catholics identify themselves as conservatives, 36 percent as moderates, and 21 percent as liberals. Religiously active Catholics are 47 percent conservative, 35 percent moderate, 14 percent liberal.

Looking at the Future

Three lines of reasoning based on these data suggest that candidates espousing a conservative agenda have a great well of potential support among Catholic voters.

First, the social-renewal orientation now dominant among Catholics, especially religiously active Catholics, gives conservatives an advantage in speaking to their concerns and issue priorities. Obviously, this advantage is hypothetical until candidates actually seek to engage Catholics with a social-renewal agenda.

Second, the Catholic swing voters who represent the battleground between Democratic and Republican candidates are 67 percent opposed to the social-justice agenda and 63 percent supportive of the social-renewal agenda. If 27 percent of likely Catholic voters are already reliable Republicans, the Republicans’ goal of winning 55 percent of the entire Catholic vote implies winning 58 percent of the swing vote (which will likely account for 48 percent of the Catholic vote in a national election). The common ground that conservative Republicans have with a majority of the swing vote is the social-renewal agenda. If 55 percent of the Catholic vote goes to the Republican presidential candidate, it looks mathematically impossible for the Democratic nominee to win.

Third, of the four clusters of Catholic voters, two are already more Republican than not: One is religiously inactive with a very high libertarian inclination but also a high social-renewal quotient; the other is very religiously active with a very high social-renewal quotient and a less pronounced libertarian inclination. These clusters each represent 21 percent of all Catholics.

The next and largest cluster (32 percent of all Catholics), the religiously inactive, has the highest percentage of social-justice Catholics (71 percent), the lowest percentage of social-renewal Catholics (20 percent), and one of the lowest levels of libertarians (30 percent). Not surprisingly, this cluster has the highest percentage of continued solid Democrats, and the fewest solid from page Republicans; there is little attitudinal affinity with the GOP or conservatives that would lead to a migration, so conservatives can be forgiven for writing these Catholics off and Democrats for counting on these voters.

But the last cluster (26 percent of all Catholics) is the most politically interesting: religiously active, anti-libertarian, much more social renewal than social justice, and currently more Democrat than Republican. This cluster represents the group of voters most ripe for migration. The religious activism means that a large majority rejects the culture of death, and an even larger majority defends the traditional family structure. The attitudinal profile makes this constituency fundamentally at odds with the direction and priorities of the Democratic Party today, and sympathetic to a conservative, morally grounded agenda of social renewal. It is this constituency that doubtless has been of inestimable importance in securing Bush’s early, unofficial lead and will represent the most important battleground for the presidential candidates in next year’s election.


  • Steven Wagner

    At the time this article was published, Steve Wagner was president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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