Just before the election, Joseph Bottum wrote an essay for The Weekly Standard arguing that a myth has grown up about the American Catholic voter: namely, that he exists. “[B]y every statistical measure,” Bottum wrote, “Catholics are indistinguishable from other voters in the American political scene.” It was a terrific essay, and a lot of its observations rang true, as when he wrote about the way intra-Catholic debates often seem stuck in the 1970s. But on the whole, I was inclined to regard Bottum’s thesis as wrong at the time, and the election results reinforce that judgment.
In the many, many journalistic discussions of the Catholic vote preceding the election, it was commonly observed that the Catholic vote has gone to the popular winner in every election since 1972. Bottum writes, “You might as well say the American vote has gone to the popular winner since 1972…. Catholics vote like everybody else” (emphasis Bottum’s). He goes on to note that Mass-attending Catholics tend to vote Republican, while Mass-skipping Catholics tend to vote Democratic–just like churchgoers and the unchurched in general.
Let’s consider those claims in reverse order. It is true that churchgoing Catholics, like churchgoing Americans in general, vote Republican–but the margin they give the Republicans is different. Bottum tells us so himself! “The Pew data consistently show active Catholics falling precisely between active evangelicals and active mainline Protestants in their views and voting patterns.”
Note that nobody suggests that the evangelical vote is a myth. People may think that its influence has been exaggerated or that it is less monolithic than sometimes portrayed. But that it is a distinctive feature of the political landscape is not doubted. And a demographic group does not have to vote as lopsidedly as active evangelicals do to count as a real voting bloc. Its importance as a swing constituency may be higher precisely because it does not vote lopsidedly. That active Catholics are less Republican than evangelicals and more Republican than mainline Protestants is a notable and interesting fact. It is a piece of information that could be useful to political strategists, and to political journalists. Even if the differences among these groups are small, it may be useful to think about those differences. Three points in the popular vote is a pretty big deal these days. It may especially useful to think in terms of “the Catholic vote” since battleground states tend to have a higher-than-average proportion of Catholics (which may, indeed, be part of the reason that they are battleground states.)
The importance of the Catholic vote is not nullified by the fact that Catholics have generally voted for the popular-vote winner. Most demographic groups do not routinely vote for the winner. Blacks don’t. Evangelicals don’t. Union members don’t. The fact that Catholics do vote for the winner suggests that, more than most groups, they determine who the winner is.
Also suggestive is the fact that the Catholic vote seems to swing more substantially than the national average. Between 1972 and 1976, for example, the Republicans’ share of the popular vote for president dropped 13 points. Among Catholics, their share dropped by 18 points. (These numbers come from George Marlin’s The American Catholic Voter.) Republicans gained 3 percentage points overall in 1980; they gained 7 among Catholics. They gained 8 more percentage points overall in 1984; they gained 12 more among Catholics. Catholic voters appear to have led shifts in public opinion rather than followed them.
The exit-poll data from 2004, which were of course not available to Bottum, suggest that the trend continues. President Bush did 3 points better in the popular vote than he did in 2000–but 5 points better among Catholics. In Ohio, Bush did 1 point better than in 2000. He did 5 points better among Catholics. Kate O’Beirne, in a post-election article on the Catholic vote for National Review, noted that Bush’s increased margin among Catholics was larger than his increase among all voters in Florida, Colorado, and New Jersey, too.
O’Beirne says that Bush’s share of the Catholic vote increased the most where bishops were outspoken about voters’ moral obligation to protect unborn human beings. This vote could continue to swing away from the Democrats. I suspect that Democratic strategists are painfully aware that this vote is no myth.