In 1960, more than 20 percent of eligible voters in the United States self-identified as Catholic. Of those who went to the polls, eight in 10 voted for the Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy. He would not have won without this strong level of support. Catholics voted largely as a bloc again in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson and the legend of the “Catholic vote” was born. Most presidential election winners have carried a Catholic majority. Although there has not been a fairly unified “Catholic vote” since 1964, it has been true that winning a majority of the “vote of Catholics” has always been important. 

Since 1968, the vote of Catholics, as well as Mainline Protestants, tends to fall between evangelical Christians, who tend to vote Republican, and those without religious affiliation, who tend to vote for Democrats. Most of the volatility and change between Democratic and Republican victories has come through the shifting preferences of Catholics and Mainline Protestants. 

What is new in 2012? A lot.

New rival to 1960s Catholic vote?

Quietly, a solid Democratic Party voting block has grown in size and importance in recent years that has a similar electoral effect to the Catholic-JFK vote. This includes the “nones,” people without a religious affiliation and those of non-Christian religious affiliations. Twenty years ago, the combination of these two groups amounted to less than 10 percent of the population and the voting electorate. Today, this combination has risen to 22 percent, making it nearly equivalent in size to the U.S. Catholic population percentage. In 2012, for the first time in memory, it will be possible for a Democratic candidate to lose the Catholic vote and still have a good chance of winning re-election. 

For example, if President Barack Obama wins 72 percent of the votes of those with no religious affiliation and those with non-Christian religious affiliations — consistent with how this block has voted in recent elections — he will likely have won a total of 15.8 percent of the national popular vote. If he also wins just 44 percent of the Christian vote — including Catholics, Protestants and other Christians — he will likely have won an additional 34.3 percent of the total popular vote.  

Add those totals together and you get 50.1 percent. That doesn’t guarantee victory, due to the effect of the Electoral College, but this does represent a non-Christian cushion of support in the electorate that no presidential candidate has ever had before. 

The Church is back in the game

The 2012 election cycle started quietly with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reissuing the same “Faithful Citizenship” statement used for the 2008 election with a new introduction. Then in February, the Church found itself again at the center of the election discourse, perhaps for the first time since 1960, when some questioned whether a Catholic should be a president. Catholics now running for president — like John Kerry and Rick Santorum — have learned that being Catholic doesn’t mean majority support among Catholics. 

Catholic voting and states
55.6 million: Estimated Catholics in the 2012 voting age population.

This time it was the Obama administration’s mandate for employers to provide coverage for contraception and sterilization without an exception that would allow Catholic universities, hospitals and charities to opt out. Catholic commentators from a variety of perspectives appeared to unify against it — before the Obama administration released an accommodation that left Catholics divided again. 

Pollsters quickly showed interest in understanding the Catholic laity’s reactions to this development. Were the majority of Catholics in favor of the mandate or opposed? A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted in February asked Catholics if they generally supported or opposed “the new federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the cost of birth control.” In this case, 60 percent of Catholics responded that they “support” the requirement. Similarly, a CBS News Poll also taken in February asked Catholics if “religious employers should be required to cover contraception.” In this case, 61 percent of Catholics said “yes.” 

However, a poll published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked Catholics if “religiously affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives” should be “given an exemption from this rule or should they be required to cover contraceptives like other employers?” In this case, a majority of Catholics (55 percent) responded that religious employers should be “given an exemption to this rule.” Likewise, a poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports gave Catholics a statement before asking the question: “The requirement to provide contraceptives for women violates deeply held beliefs of some churches and religious organizations. If providing such coverage violates the beliefs of a church or religious organization, should the government still require them to provide coverage for contraceptives?” In this case, two in three Catholic respondents (65 percent) said no, the government should not require religious organizations to provide coverage of contraceptives. 

The team

What does the Catholic vote look like in 2012? So far, most surveys show Catholics slightly favoring the Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, over President Obama — but no evidence of a JFK-like bloc forming yet. Catholics who attend Mass more frequently are even more supportive of Romney over Obama. 

The distribution of Catholic voters across the battleground territories has led many to predict that Romney may select a Catholic running mate who, in theory, could bolster his potential votes in one of these states. This would lead to an interesting all-Catholic vice presidential debate. Whatever is ahead in the coming months, it is sure to include Catholicism in ways we have not seen in recent years.  

Mark Gray and Melissa Cidade are research associates at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.