What is the profile of today’s Catholic voter?

As the 114th Congress got underway earlier this year, the House of Representatives had 69 Catholic Republicans and 68 Catholic Democrats. Just six years ago, at the start of the 111th Congress, the figures were 98 Catholic Democrats and 37 Catholic Republicans.

Striking as that change may be in itself, it also points to a larger reality: In the last six decades, moving by fits and starts and with frequent backpedaling, Catholics — politicians and voters alike — have moved away from the Democrats toward the GOP.

Catholic voting last November provides another indicator of this shift, with 54 percent of all Catholics and 60 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics, backing GOP congressional candidates.

A similar pattern now exists in other contexts — presidential politics among them.

Thus, as the 2016 presidential election approaches, two Catholics — Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — are mentioned as potential rivals to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. But at least five Catholics are viewed as possible contenders for the Republican nomination: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The Catholic bloc

All the same, it would be an over-simplification to suggest that American Catholics as a group are now firmly in the GOP camp. For one thing, it’s no longer realistic to speak of a “Catholic vote” — meaning a religiously identifiable bloc of voters who consistently vote alike. Voting by American Catholics instead has zigzagged for years between the two parties, making them perhaps the country’s largest body of swing voters.

Other factors also make generalizing about Catholic voting a hazardous pastime. Hispanics, a majority of them Catholic, lean Democratic by a 2-1 margin, while more than half of religiously observant non-Hispanic white Catholics identify with the Republicans. But Catholics who seldom or never attend Mass tend to be Democrats.

Up until the middle of the last century, Catholics were commonly viewed as reliable Democratic voters. When New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic and a Democrat, sought the presidency in 1928 — the first Catholic in history to do that — he got an estimated 85-90 percent of the votes by Catholics. But partly due to widespread resistance to the idea of a Catholic president, Smith was overwhelmed by the GOP candidate, Herbert Hoover.

The Smith campaign nevertheless helped mobilize Catholics as a major, and heavily Democratic, force in national elections. Gallup polls indicated that Franklin Roosevelt received nearly three-fourths of Catholic votes in 1936 and about 70 percent in 1940. The same pattern persisted in the election of 1948, when around two-thirds of the votes cast by Catholics went to Harry Truman.

Change set in with Dwight Eisenhower, who received 48 percent of the votes by Catholics in 1952 and 54 percent in 1956. Aside from the popular Republican’s personal appeal, some linked this result to the fact that Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent in both elections, was divorced.

Switching parties

In his book “The Catholic Voter in American Politics” (Georgetown University Press, $22.95), William B. Prendergast says issues of foreign and military policy tended to “incline many Catholics toward the Republican party” during the Cold War. Prendergast, a former Pentagon official who served as research director of the Republican National Committee, sees this as a product of ethnic Catholic anti-communism fueled by persecution of the Church in Eastern Europe under Soviet domination.

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John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign brought Catholics back to the Democratic fold in overwhelming numbers, with 82 percent voting for the first Catholic to be elected president.

After that, Catholic voters largely stuck with the Democrats until 1972, when incumbent Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern, a supporter of legalized abortion, with 59 percent of the Catholic vote. Although abortion wasn’t yet the issue, it was soon to become following the Supreme Court’s January 1973 decision that legalized the practice, and McGovern’s stand clearly helped turn some Catholics against him.

But as the Cold War waned and voters’ attention increasingly shifted to social welfare issues like health care and housing, says Prendergast, “Republican candidates found themselves fighting on unfavorable terrain” and plagued by the party’s old image as a “representative of wealth and privilege.” More recently, the GOP has turned off many Hispanic voters by its opposition to anything smacking of amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

The Democrats for their part have succeeded in alienating traditional Catholics by identifying themselves as the defenders of abortion and, lately, same-sex marriage.

For Catholics, it’s been back and forth between the parties as a result. Exit polls showed Republican George W. Bush receiving the support of 47 percent of Catholics in 2000 and 52 percent in 2004. For Democrat Barack Obama, the Catholic vote percentages were 54 percent in 2008 and 50 percent in 2012.

As matters now stand, breakdowns of Catholic voting disclose a complex reality according to which Catholics are sharply divided among themselves in their political behavior. Thus in 2012, white non-Hispanic Catholic voters went 50 percent for Obama and 48 percent for Republican Mitt Romney, while the numbers among Hispanics were 75 percent Obama against 21 percent Romney.

Religious practice is another strong differentiating factor not just among Catholics but among Americans generally. Figures from last year’s elections for all voters, Catholics included, showed that those who go to church weekly voted 58 percent Republican and 40 percent Democratic. But among those who attend religious services only a few times a year, it was 51 percent Republican and 48 percent Democratic, while people who never go to church voted 62 percent Democratic and only 36 percent Republican.

A ‘distinctive mark’

Catholics can perhaps take satisfaction from the fact that their status as swing voters in the current political scene entitles them to a certain amount of special attention. But the swing voting also comes at a price.

Writing in early 2011, at a time when the number of Catholic Republicans in the House had risen to 64, against the Catholic Democrats’ 68, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson asked what difference that was likely to make. His answer was, “not much.”

A century earlier, wrote Gerson, a conservative Protestant who was a speechwriter in the White House of George W. Bush, many Catholics voted Democratic out of “ethnic solidarity.” Now that had changed. “Most Catholics vote almost exactly like their suburban neighbors. Catholics are often swing voters in elections precisely because they are so typical.

“There is something vaguely disturbing about the precise symmetry of any religious group with other voters of their same class and background. One would hope that an ancient, demanding faith would leave some distinctive mark.”

Is that really hoping for too much?

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.