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The State of the Catholic Vote

The State of the Catholic Vote


Tuesday, 16 August 2016 11:54 AM Current | Bio | Archive

With the 2016 presidential campaign in full swing, the quadrennial surveys forecasting voting preferences of so-called Catholic voters are appearing in the press. But many of these polls are misleading because a large subset of baptized Catholics no longer practice their faith and ignore church teachings when determining their choice for president.

In my 2004 book, "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," I pointed out that historically, Catholics have been a pivotal swing vote that determined outcomes in numerous national, state, and local elections.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Democratic Party endorsed various Catholic social principles that appealed to northern urban Catholic immigrants.

When the Democrats endorsed in 1928, the first Catholic candidate for president, N.Y. Gov. Alfred E. Smith, 85 percent of Catholics cast their vote for him.

Because there was a huge outpouring of Catholic ethnic voters, Smith carried America’s largest cities by a plurality of 38,000, whereas the 1920 and 1924 Democratic presidential candidates lost those cities by 1.6 million and 1.2 million votes, respectively. 

Even though Smith lost to Herbert Hoover, the Catholic voters started a new shift in the balance of political power in the United States. The distinguished political analyst, Samuel Lubell, concluded “The Republican hold on the cities was broken not by [Franklin] Roosevelt, but by . . . Smith . . . Before there was a Roosevelt revolution there was an Al Smith revolution."

In the 1960 presidential race, John F. Kennedy won that closely contested election because his fellow Catholic urban voters in the rich electoral states of the Northeast and Midwest gave him over 80 percent of their votes.

Election expert Michael Barone has argued that Kennedy “split the nation along religious lines, which is to say cultural lines, not along lines of economic class.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s, many Catholic World War II veterans felt unwanted in a Democratic Party that was being taken over by leftwing elitists and social engineers who frowned upon their values.

Many became Nixon and Reagan Democrats and voted Republican because that party defended their values, particularly on abortion and religious liberty.

In the 21st century, however, the Catholic demographic has significantly changed and Catholics are no longer a monolithic bloc that cast their votes based on the social teachings of the church. Over 90 percent of the Greatest Generation have gone on to their heavenly reward and many of their children and grandchildren are no longer practicing Catholics.

Sociologist Charles Murray, in his book "Coming Apart," points out that the younger remaining Catholic blue-collar residents of once vibrant manufacturing towns are no longer “tightly knit, family oriented, hard working, hard fighting” due to the declining influence of the church and the triumph of the counterculture.

Then there is the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the United States.

In 1988, there were 7.7 million eligible Hispanic voters and this year that number is expected to top 26 million. Their votes will determine which presidential candidate carries the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, and Texas.

While a vast majority of Hispanics are baptized Catholics, many are “cafeteria” Catholics who keep church doctrines they like and reject those they find inconvenient.

Hispanic teen pregnancies are the highest of any ethnic group; 53 percent of Hispanic births are to single mothers who often become dependent on the government.

As for the abortion issue, there is a generation gap: 65 percent of first generation Hispanics are pro-life; 53 percent of their children are pro-abortion.

Columnist Ross Douthat has written that the Democrats have carried the Hispanic vote because Hispanics are not assimilating successfully, “or worse, are assimilating downward thanks to rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and high dropout rates. The Democratic edge among Hispanics depends heavily on the darker trends: The weaker that families and communities are the more necessary government support inevitably seems.”

Because public-opinion surveys include large subsets of nonpracticing Catholic Hispanics and whites, the results do not properly reflect the views of church-going Catholics or measure the impact they can have in November.

Will practicing Catholics matter in the 2016 election? Yes.

In the economically-depressed rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, aging Catholics are disproportionately represented. Their numbers are higher than in other states because their children and grandchildren — many of whom are “cafeteria” Catholics — have moved to more economically prosperous regions.

Most of these working-class Catholics subscribe to traditional Judeo-Christian principles, live them in their daily lives, and expect the same of public officials. Their beliefs mean more than material gain and transcend economic issues.

So, despite their dwindling numbers, if the Rust Belt states are closely contested in November, the one or two percent difference that practicing Catholics can make will determine which person will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2017.

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact." He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.




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Most working-class Catholics subscribe to traditional Judeo-Christian principles, live them in their daily lives, and expect the same of public officials. Their beliefs mean more than material gain and transcend economic issues.
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Tuesday, 16 August 2016 11:54 AM
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