Election 2016: The Catholic Factor

After the 2012 election, it became apparent that the rise of the “none/other” vote — those in the electorate without a religious affiliation or identifying as something other than Christian — was becoming as important for Democrats electorally as the Catholic vote was for John F. Kennedy and Democrats in 1960. At that time, about 8 in 10 Catholics voted for Kennedy, and they made up about 20 percent of all voters, according to the American National Election Study. In 2012, 29 percent of voters either had no religious affiliation or identified as something other than Christian, and collectively, about 7 in 10 of these voters cast a ballot for the Democrat incumbent, President Barack Obama.

In 2016, the potential electoral strength of the none/other vote has grown even stronger, giving the Democrats a built-in structural advantage even before anyone knows who will win the nominations. The religious makeup of the electorate matters as there is no division between religion and campaign politics in the United States in the same way that there is a division between church and state. Candidates for the presidency can choose to include as much religion as they want in their campaigns. Given the evolving religious makeup of the electorate, we are likely to hear a lot about religion from candidates from one party and perhaps very little — other than the standard “God bless America” — from candidates on the other side.

Religious Affiliation of U.S. Adults
Source: General Social Survey

Statistics speak loudly

Statistics back up that Catholics, generally, are politically the most split religious demographic. Over the last seven national elections (from 2002-2014), Catholics on average have voted for Democratic candidates for president or for the House of Representatives 50 percent of the time. Compare that to other religious groups, which have a much more prominent lean. In the same elections, according to exit poll data, Protestant Christians chose Democratic candidates 41 percent of the time. All other demographics by religious affiliation leaned strongly Democrat, including Jewish voters (73 percent), those of other faith traditions (71 percent) and those with no religious affiliation (70 percent).

If recent trends continue in 2016, Democrats can very likely expect at least 70 percent of the non-Christian vote. The Democratic nominee is also likely to only receive about 40 percent of the vote of Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians. As usual, this will likely leave the vote of Catholics to be pivotal — the swing vote that could go as a majority with either the Democrat or Republican nominee and tip the scales to either party.

The challenge for Republicans is that the share of the population that self-identifies as Protestant or Christian (other than Catholics) is in decline, while the share that is non-Christian is growing. According to the General Social Survey, when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, the non-Christian share of the adult population was 20 percent, and Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians made up a majority of 54 percent. In 2014, the non-Christian population share had grown to 26 percent, and Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians had fallen below 50 percent.

If the Democrat nominee receives 70 percent of the non-Christian vote (26 percent of potential voters), and 40 percent of the Protestant and other non-Catholic Christian vote (49 percent of potential voters), and 50 percent of the Catholic vote (25 percent of potential voters), then they will have presumably won 50.3 percent of the popular vote nationally.

All of these estimates might be on the conservative side, as the share of those with no affiliation is likely to be even larger in 2016, and they may make up an even higher percentage of voters. It is also the case that the Democrat share of this vote could very well exceed 70 percent. Working in the other direction, religiously affiliated citizens may be more likely to vote than those without an affiliation.

On balance, it is possible that 2016 may be the last election in the foreseeable future that a religiously inspired, socially conservative Republican candidate is likely to be elected president without attracting a significant majority of Catholics.

Catholic candidates

As of Our Sunday Visitor’s mid-December press date, five Catholics remained in the race to be president on the Republican side, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki. Yet being a Catholic candidate no longer means what it did in 1960.

A 2013 survey of adult Catholics conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) revealed that only 6 percent of Catholics said that it matters “very much” to them if a presidential candidate is Catholic. An additional 16 percent said it mattered “somewhat” and 19 percent said it mattered “a little.” Most, 59 percent, said it mattered “not at all.”

At the same time, a Gallup survey conducted in June 2015 estimated that 96 percent of adult Catholics would vote for a Catholic candidate. Significantly fewer said they would vote for an atheist (58 percent) or a socialist (46 percent). Ninety-three percent said they would vote for a female president.

Key problems

The country’s most important problems, as identified by U.S. adults in public opinion surveys, change with the news headlines. Catholics tend to choose the identical set of problems as the general public overall. Generally, the top problems this year for all adults have included the following issues in some order: the economy and jobs, terrorism, immigration and health care.

In all likelihood, these issues will remain important in the upcoming election. However, new issues could emerge. No matter what happens, it is safe to say that the economy and jobs will be a central concern of voters and thus likely a central campaign theme.

One could argue that Church leaders’ stances on poverty, immigration, the death penalty and climate change are more consistent with the Democratic Party platform. At the same time, stances on abortion, marriage, religious freedom and euthanasia are more consistent with the Republican Party platform. No matter who the two major party nominees are, neither will embody the stances “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” promotes in its entirety.

USCCB document

In 2015, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops updated its statement on political responsibility, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, for the 2016 election. The current document has its roots in 2007. One significant addition is a new introductory note addressing the current election cycle. This asks, “We urge our pastors, lay and religious faithful, and all people of goodwill to use this statement to help form their consciences; to teach those entrusted to their care; to contribute to civil and respectful public dialogue; and to shape political choices in the coming election in light of Catholic teaching.”

Faithful Citizenship includes new content to address emerging concerns regarding abortion, physician-assisted suicide, marriage, environmental concerns, violence against Christians, religious freedom, poverty, immigration and terrorism.

Previous CARA surveys of Catholic adults indicate that fewer than 1 in 5 can recall reading Faithful Citizenship after an election. Most of those who are aware of the document read excerpts in parish bulletins and news articles rather than the long-form piece. It is thus perhaps not surprising that only about 1 in 20 consider it to be a major influence on their political choices.

One of the challenges Catholic Church leaders face in the United States is that if they were to follow Faithful Citizenship closely, Catholics would be “homeless” in the two-party system. Thus, the document is intended to “form consciences” for making what are often difficult political choices. The Church’s stance on issues is divided between both parties. One could argue that Church leaders’ stances on poverty, immigration, the death penalty and climate change are more consistent with the Democratic Party platform. At the same time, stances on abortion, marriage, religious freedom and euthanasia are more consistent with the Republican Party platform. No matter who the two major party nominees are, neither will embody the stances Faithful Citizenship promotes in its entirety. (For more on “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” see the sidebar.)

Religious Affiliation of U.S. Adults
Percentage of U.S. adult Catholics who agree with the following statements:
(* – denotes statement inconsistent with Church teaching)
Source: General Social Survey

Partisanship, ideology, issues

Catholic voters in the United States tend to most often steer toward the “middle of the road.” According to the General Social Survey, 43 percent consider themselves to be political “moderates.” Twenty-four percent identify as “slightly liberal” to “extremely liberal,” and 33 percent as “slightly conservative” to “extremely conservative.” Thus, the Catholic electorate as a whole is a “center-right” block ideologically.

At the same time, 48 percent of Catholics say they either “lean Democrat” or are a “strong Democrat.” Only 29 percent of Catholics “lean Republican” or are a “strong Republican” with 24 percent saying they are independents or affiliate with a third party.

This combination of center-right ideology and Democratic affiliation may be at the core of what makes Catholics such a key swing vote. They can be attracted away from their partisan leanings, from time to time, to vote majority Republican. This may often happen when Catholics perceive Democrats as moving too far to the left.

Catholics are also divided by issues and by the Church’s stances on those issues. They favor permits for purchasing guns, abortion when the child may have serious birth defects, euthanasia for patients with an incurable diseases, same-sex marriage, and for immigration numbers to remain stable or increase. All of these policies are generally consistent with Democratic Party positions. They do not believe in a “right to die” absent incurable disease nor in abortion on demand. They favor the death penalty and are not in favor of the government reducing income differences between rich and poor. These policies are generally more consistent with Republican Party positions.

Laudato Si’There were no climate change questions in the 2014 GSS, and even if there were, these would be prior to the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology, (“Praise Be to You”). However, according to a survey conducted in August by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 47 percent of Catholics agree with Pope Francis on the issue of climate change while 24 percent disagree. The remaining 29 percent were not familiar with what Pope Francis had said, didn’t know how to answer or refused to respond. A June survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that only 47 percent of Catholics believe that the Earth is warming and that this is mostly due to human activity. A similar percentage, 48 percent, regarded global warming as a “very serious problem.”

At the state level, the legal status of marijuana use may become a wedge issue as it has in other recent elections. Yet, candidates’ stances on this issue are unlikely to change many minds. Catholics, as with many other issues, are divided on the legality of marijuana use. In the 2014 GSS, 48 percent favored making marijuana use legal and 52 percent opposed it.

Hispanic Catholics

While the Catholic vote, from nearly every angle, seems to be possibly teetering in either electoral direction, there is one more predictable pattern over time. In 2010, 32 percent of adult Catholics were Hispanic or Latino. By 2014, this percentage had risen to 38 percent. (Note that one limitation to the electoral strength of the Hispanic Catholic vote is that only about 3 in 4 are citizens and, thus, eligible to cast ballots in federal elections.)

There are stable and distinguishable differences between the political preferences of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics, and this could play a role in how the 2016 Catholic vote goes. The divide is largely partisan. A majority of Hispanic Catholics are Democrats (53 percent), while a minority of non-Hispanic Catholics are (44 percent). According to the GSS, 76 percent of Hispanic Catholic voters cast ballots for President Obama in 2012 compared to 49 percent of non-Hispanic Catholic voters.

While these partisan affiliation and voting patterns are clearly evident, oddly, there is little or no divide in terms of political ideology with nearly an identical number of Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics describing themselves as “slightly” to “very” liberal (23 percent and 25 percent, respectively). There are also counter-partisan issue divides. Hispanic Catholics are less likely than non-Hispanic Catholics to believe abortion should be legal on demand for any reason (32 percent compared to 45 percent) or when there is a possibility of a serious birth defect (65 percent compared to 80 percent).

Some of the key issues that may keep Hispanic Catholics voting for Democrats are related to immigration, the economy and criminal justice. Only 1 in 4 Hispanic Catholics thinks the number of immigrants should be reduced (24 percent) compared to nearly half of non-Hispanic Catholics (47 percent). A majority of Hispanic Catholics believe the government should reduce income differences between the rich and poor (53 percent), while fewer than half of non-Hispanic Catholics are in agreement with this (41 percent). Hispanic Catholics also are less likely than non-Hispanic Catholics to favor the death penalty for murders (49 percent compared to 70 percent).

With Democrats winning strong majorities of those with no religion, as well as those affiliated with a non-Christian religion, just winning a few percentage points more of the vote of Catholics would push the religious electoral math for the Democratic Party even further into majority territory. With growing numbers of Catholics self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino, 2016 again is potentially a tipping point election. In future presidential elections beyond 2016, it is possible that Protestants may remain the only large religious subgroup voting Republican as a majority.

This combination of center-right ideology and Democratic affiliation may be at the core of what makes Catholics such a key swing vote. They can be attracted away from their partisan leanings, from time to time, to vote majority Republican. This may often happen when Catholics perceive Democrats as moving too far to the left.

The primaries

Don’t expect to learn too much about the Catholic vote after the early nominating contests. According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics do not make up large segments of the adult population in any of the first caucus or primary states. New Hampshire is 26 percent Catholic, Iowa is 18 percent Catholic, and just 1 in 10 in South Carolina self-identifies as Catholic.

The Catholic voters, as in past years, make up the largest numbers of adults in Rhode Island (42 percent), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), Illinois (28 percent) and California (28 percent). All of these states voted Democrat for president in 2012. These states will total 131 Electoral College votes in 2016 (24 percent of all 538 Electoral College votes of which a minimum of 270 are needed to win).


Since 2000, the United States has had close or rather unpredictable elections. Often, the polls and pundits have been wrong. Yet long-standing patterns have emerged from the election data in the last 15 years. These seem to converge on the reality that once again winning the Catholic vote will be essential for the winning candidate in 2016.

Determining how to accomplish this remains quite a challenge given the patterns of partisan affiliation, ideology and issue stances described here.

Mark M. Gray is a senior research associate for the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Faithful Citizenship
The U.S. bishops at their fall general assembly approved an updated version of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Included in the text is a summary of policy positions of the USCCB. To read the full document online, visit faithfulcitizenship.org.