Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

Up through Super Tuesday, Catholic voters were strong supporters of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. The Catholic vote helped her win in New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, California, Connecticut, and New Mexico. In these states she won the Catholic vote by 15 to 40 percentage points. On Super Tuesday, she only lost the Catholic vote in Missouri and Georgia. If she had won the Catholic vote in Missouri, she would have won the state.

Experts are divided on why Catholics voted for Hillary. Most scholars believe that once the number crunchers get a hold of the exit poll data and control for income, gender, age, education and issue concerns, the “Catholic factor” will disappear. For example, in New Hampshire Catholics tend to be working-class ethnics, while in California, many are Hispanic.

Some wonder if this could be a case of Catholic racism, or is it a case of Catholic feminism? Most studies show, however, that white Catholics are more liberal than white Protestants.

Another theory is that Catholics are uncomfortable with the evangelical rhetorical style of Obama’s speeches. Interestingly, Catholic Republicans rejected Huckabee and voted for McCain. He only lost the Catholic vote in Romney’s home states, Massachusetts and Michigan, and in Georgia. Catholics helped McCain get the nomination.

More recently, the Catholic tide has been moving away from Clinton and toward Obama, although more slowly than with other Democrats. Obama won Catholics in Louisiana and Virginia, and split the Catholic vote with Clinton in Maryland and Wisconsin.

The slow move away from Clinton gives us another theory: perhaps Catholics are just slower to switch their loyalties than other Americans. After all, they stick with the church through thick and thin.

Whatever the reason for the way Catholics are voting in primaries, the Catholic vote will be important in November. Catholics since 1928 have been part of the traditional Democratic coalition in presidential elections. They even voted against Eisenhower in 1952 and against Nixon in 1968. The two national polls (Gallup and the National Election Studies) disagree on how they voted in 1956.

Nixon, however, won them in 1972 and they have been a key prize in every election since then, almost always going with the winner of the popular vote. I have to say “popular vote” because in 2000 they voted for Gore, who won the popular vote and lost in the Supreme Court. The polls disagree on how Catholics voted in 1988 and 2004. In 2004, the Exit Polls have Catholics voting for Bush, but Gallup and the National Election Studies have them voting for Kerry.

McCain has done very well with Catholic Republicans. Could he cut into Catholic Democrats and independents? Certainly Hispanics like him better than the other Republican candidates. If Obama wins the nomination, he will need to pull Catholics into his coalition. If he does not, he will lose the election.

National Election Studies

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Senior Fellow
Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University
Washington, DC

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