by Jennifer Agiesta, Manager of Research
Amid all the ritual surrounding the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, the media have focused a spotlight on the complex relationship between Catholic faith and political behavior. A number of recent polls have shown that many American Catholics prefer more liberal views than those the church currently holds, and many hold out hope that John Paul II’s successor will move the church away from strict doctrine on such issues as birth control, the makeup of the clergy and stem cell research.
And while much has been made of the influence that conservative and evangelical Christians wielded at the voting booth this past November, there has been very little discussion of the impact of America’s estimated 66.3 million Catholics. Was there a connection between official Catholic doctrine and their voting behavior?
The Catholic Church did not shy away from involvement in the race for president. John Kerry’s turn as the first major-party Catholic candidate since 1960 caused some bishops in the U.S. to call on their fellow Catholics to deny communion to Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights or stem cell research. However, most lay Catholics – 78 percent in a CBS News poll conducted May 20-23, 2004 – did not think it was appropriate for the church to refuse to give communion to such politicians. In the same poll, 61 percent of Catholics said it is inappropriate “for religious leaders to urge people to vote for or against a political candidate.” That did not stop Pope John Paul II from criticizing George W. Bush’s foreign policy, particularly the war with Iraq. While Bush sought to woo Catholic voters with a trip to the Vatican in June of 2004, the Pope’s criticism may have cooled the effects of the visit.
How did all of this play out on Election Day? In the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, Catholics made up 26 percent of voters last year, the same as in the 2000 Voter News Service exit poll. And as in 2000, Catholics were a swing group. Nationally, they voted 47 percent for John Kerry and 52 percent for George W. Bush, statistically identical to the overall vote. Catholics also split their votes for House of Representatives, with 47 percent voting for the Democratic candidate in their district and 48 percent voting for the Republican. Likewise, they are virtually split in party identification, 36 percent say they are Democrats, 38 percent Republicans, with the remainder having no party allegiance. In addition, a majority of Catholics, 52 percent, consider themselves political moderates.
An important division exists between white and minority Catholics, particularly Hispanic Catholics. While they are a swing group overall, white Catholics voted decidedly for George W. Bush in 2004, 56 percent to 43 percent, and Hispanic Catholics strongly supported John Kerry, voting 65 percent to 33 percent in his favor. In this year’s exit poll, Hispanics made up 17 percent of Catholics, a jump of 4 percent from 2000. It will be interesting to see if this rift deepens over time as the makeup of the American Catholic church continues to change.
Catholics played a key role in almost all of this election’s closely contested states. Of the eleven states decided by 5 percent or less, only Oregon has a Catholic population of less than 20 percent, furthermore 32 percent of the nation’s Catholic voters (compared to 27 percent of non-Catholics) reside in these eleven states.
Catholic voters may have had the strongest impact in Ohio, a state that many considered the key to victory for President Bush. Bush won the Catholic vote in the Buckeye state by 11 points, improving from a 6 percent margin in 2000. Without this increase in Catholic voters, the Ohio race would have been a true dead heat at 48 percent each. Without Catholic voters at all, the state would have tipped slightly Kerry’s way, 50 percent to 49 percent, handing him the presidency.
Catholics were more likely to be late deciders than other religious groups, with 13 percent making up their minds in the last week of the campaign (compared to 11 percent overall), most of those, 10 percent of all Catholics, decided in the last three days. Despite efforts by both campaigns to win over Catholics, they were less likely to have been contacted by either of the major presidential campaigns than non-Catholics. Two-thirds of Catholics reported not being contacted by either candidate as compared to 63 percent of non-Catholics.
In contrast with religious doctrine, Catholics very much mirror the opinions of the electorate as a whole. A slight majority (53 percent) believes that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 94 percent are very or somewhat concerned about the availability and cost of health care, and surprisingly, 69 percent believe there should be some legal recognition of homosexual relationships, nine percent more than among all voters. Seventeen percent of Catholics said that “moral values” was the most important issue for them in this election, slightly lower than among other Christian denominations.
The war in Iraq divided Catholics much as it divided the rest of the country in 2004. Despite the papal criticism, most supported the decision to go to war (55 percent among Catholics, 52 percent among non-Catholics) and believe that the Iraq war is a part of the war on terrorism (54 percent among Catholics, 55 percent among non-Catholics). Catholics were equally likely to be optimistic about the war in Iraq, 10 percent thought the war was going very well at the time of the election, 36 percent said somewhat well compared to 11 percent and 33 percent respectively among non-Catholics. Iraq was the most important issue in deciding how to vote for president for 15 percent of Catholics, the same as among other voters. Terrorism was named as the most important issue by 22 percent of Catholic voters, the highest percentage naming this issue of any religious group in the exit poll.
John Kerry and George W. Bush split the Catholic vote evenly in the most contested states of last year’s balloting. If the 2004 election is any indication, Catholics are unlikely to temper their voting behavior based on the doctrines of the Vatican.