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The Catholic vote in 2016

Now that the Iowa caucuses are over, attention turns to the primaries in both the Republican and Democratic parties beginning with New Hampshire. There has been much discussion of how evangelicals will vote in the Republican primaries and how women and minorities will vote in the Democratic primaries, but little has been said about Catholics.

E.J. Dionne is fond of saying that "there is no Catholic vote and it is important." His point is that Catholics do not vote as a bloc. But they are important because they have voted for the winner of the popular vote in almost every presidential election since Roosevelt (they did not vote for Ike in 1952). We might modify Dionne’s saying to read "there is no Catholic vote and that is why it is important."

Today the Catholic vote is divided into two major parts, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. Traditionally, white Catholics voted Democratic beginning in 1928 when Al Smith was pilloried by anti-Catholic bigots supporting the Republican candidate. The Great Depression and the New Deal solidified their support for the Democratic Party.

Today, however, the children and grandchildren of these working-class white Catholics are just as likely to vote Republican. Thanks to their parents, the GI Bill, and a prosperous economy, these children went to college and joined the professional and business classes. Their taxes went up with their incomes and they forgot their roots.

As a result, when politicians look at the Catholic vote they see two groups: the Hispanics, who are solidly Democratic because of the Republican demonization of immigrants, and white Catholics, made up of college-educated Catholics and a declining number of alienated blue-collar workers (the so-called Reagan Democrats).

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White Catholics are often pointed to as the preeminent swing voters who can decide an election. They are the ones to whom candidates are supposed to appeal if they want to win.

The truth is that in presidential elections, the parties care little about swing voters. Cost benefit analysis indicates that it is a lot cheaper to motivate a lazy supporter to go to the polls than to convert an undecided person to your side. This is why both parties focus on getting out the base rather than on swing voters, who also vote at lower rates than partisan voters.

Candidate Barack Obama was very successful at mobilizing the Democratic base and getting his voters to the polls. Sadly for him and the Democrats, although this strategy worked well for presidential elections, it did not work for congressional elections, where in swing districts you have to win swing voters.

In fact, some of the themes (abortion, immigration, etc.) emphasized in presidential campaigns hurt Democrats in swing districts. For example, there are very few Hispanics in swing congressional districts. In other words, Democrats can ignore white Catholics in presidential elections, but not if they want to control the House of Representatives.

Do Catholic voters make a difference in presidential primaries? Yes, and for both parties.

Four years ago, there were a number of Catholics running in the Republican presidential primaries. None of them ever got a majority of the Catholic vote. In fact, while evangelicals were voting for various Catholic candidates (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum), Catholic Republicans were consistently voting for the Mormon, Mitt Romney.

Fifty percent of Catholic voters voted for Romney in the primaries from January to March 6. Only 22 percent voted for Santorum, with Gingrich coming in third with 18 percent of the Catholic Republican vote. Only in South Carolina did Catholics give a majority of their vote to another candidate (Gingrich) rather than Romney.

Without Catholic support, Romney would not have been nominated in 2012.

Catholic Republicans tend to be better educated and more suburban than their more rural evangelical colleagues. As professionals and business people, they saw Romney as someone like themselves culturally and professionally. Catholic Republicans are comfortable with the establishment because they have done well with it. For Catholic Republicans, religion is about family and has little to do with politics.

What will Republican Catholics do this time?

Sadly, as with last year, the exit polls do not tell us how Catholic Republicans voted in the Iowa caucuses. But we do have national polling data from the Pew Forum.

According to the Pew Forum, 54 percent of Catholic Republicans think that Donald Trump would be a good/great president. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have almost equally high numbers (52% and 51%). Ben Carson got only 39 percent saying this. Since Pew did not force respondents to choose, we will have to wait for the exit polls to find out how Republican Catholics actually vote.

Six-in-ten evangelical Republicans say Carson would be good president

Will they identify with Trump the businessman or with Rubio, the establishment candidate? How will they see Cruz, who like Trump is an antiestablishment candidate?

What about the Democratic primaries?

In 2008, Catholics voted strongly for Hilary Clinton. They gave her 60 percent or more of their vote in California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts in the February 5 primaries. One writer opined that since Catholics were taught by nuns, they were comfortable with a strong woman. Others saw a darker message, that Catholics were prejudiced.

So, were Catholics feminists or racists? More likely, despite the scandals, Catholics still liked Bill Clinton and saw Obama as an unknown.

But in the key Missouri primary, Obama narrowly won the Catholic vote. As time went on, Clinton still did well with Catholics but she only broke 60 percent in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Rhode Island. She lost Catholics in Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia, where black Catholics may have influenced the vote. Clinton needed the strong support of White Catholics if she was going to overcome Obama’s advantage with Black Democrats. Simply splitting the Catholic vote would not do it.

Will Catholic Democrats support Clinton this time? It looks like it.

According to the Pew Forum, 69 percent of Catholic Democrats say that Clinton would be a great/good president. Only 46 percent say the same thing about Bernie Sanders. Unlike Republican Catholics who categorize three of the candidate in almost equal numbers as great or good presidents, Catholic Democrats lean by 23 percentage points toward Clinton.

About two-thirds of unaffiliated Democrats say Sanders would be good or great president

Finally, if we look beyond the primaries, we find that 40 percent of all Catholics believe that Clinton would be a great or good president. This is the highest percentage of Catholics saying this about any candidate, followed by 30 percent saying the same thing about Trump and Ted Cruz, and 29 percent saying it for Rubio.

All three Republican candidates do equally well with Catholics, but not as well as Clinton.

On the other hand, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that Cruz had the highest (47 percent) favorable ratings among Catholics, followed by Rubio (44 percent), Clinton (43 percent), Sanders (43 percent), and Trump (38 percent). Except for Trump, these numbers are very close. 

Clinton has a high percentage of Catholics (41 percent) saying she would be a poor/terrible president, according to Pew, but Trump has even higher negatives with 53 percent saying he would be a poor or terrible president. Likewise Clinton (54 percent) and Trump (58 percent) had the highest unfavorable numbers from PRRI. Catholics either love them or hate them. 

In comparison, Cruz and Rubio have lower negatives, with 28 percent of Catholics saying they would be poor or terrible as president.

The election season is only just beginning but the field is narrowing. So, even if there is no such thing as a Catholic vote, it will be worth watching how Catholics vote in the coming Republican and Democratic primaries. They could again be key in choosing the candidates for both parties. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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October 21-November 3, 2016

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