Are Trump and Biden chasing a voting bloc that doesn’t exist?

Amid discussion of the presidential candidates courting the Catholic vote, we ask if the Catholic vote truly exists

Between a Catholic presidential candidate and the widely held idea that “as go Catholics, so goes the nation,” this election cycle has seen much ado about the “Catholic vote.”

Both Trump and Biden hope to woo the “Catholic vote,” with the latter playing up his Catholic credentials and the former possibly making a bid for Catholic support by nominating former Notre Dame law professor Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the U.S. Supreme Court. 

But does a Catholic voting bloc really exist?

Academics have said no for the past two decades.

“That’s not to say that Catholic voting is unimportant in elections. But we’re talking about one-fifth (of the nation) that reflect voting patterns of the rest of the country and that as a group, together, is not particularly distinctive,” says Mark Rozell, founding dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

So rather than a decisive national voting bloc, Catholics instead make up a representative sample of American voters. Hence, the adage about the “Catholic vote” reflecting the national results holds true. 

But, paradoxically, this nonexistent “Catholic vote” remains important — with one scholar calling them the “ultimate swing vote” — particularly on a state level. Post-election data showed Catholic voters delivered two decisive battleground states to Trump in 2016. And they could do the same for either candidate this year.

Experts explain that further complicating efforts to single out a Catholic is that they are not single-issue voters going to the polls to fight abortion as they are sometimes depicted in news media.

Today the “Catholic vote” is split more or less evenly between the two major parties. Those who sit on the Republican side of the aisle are predominantly white, while minorities in the faith, for the most part, identify as Democrats. So, what do these two often diametrically opposed Catholic votes mean for the 2020 election?

Understanding “Catholic vote”

Among the academics frustrated by the often mentioned “Catholic vote” is Michele Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.”

Just as “we’ve become better about saying ‘white evangelicals,’” says Margolis, so do we need to talk about “the ethnic differences being masked when we talk about the Catholic vote. ... There’s this huge gap between white and Hispanics (that is) muddled over when we talk about the ‘Catholic vote.’” 

Margolis also points out that there are differences between those who attend church regularly versus those who are Catholic in name only. 

While the term “Catholic vote” was accurate 30 years ago, Margolis says, when “9 out of 10” were white, “now it’s about 55%” white. 

However, white Catholics have a bigger impact because minority Catholics “don’t vote at the same rate,” Margolis says. “Hispanic Catholics are 45% of the Catholic community but they’re not 45% of the Catholic electorate.” 

The percentage of white Catholics “is going to continue to drop,” Margolis adds. “Among Catholics under 30, 52% are Hispanic. When we talk about the Catholic vote moving forward, it is becoming less and less white.” 

As many Hispanics vote Democrat, does that mean that the Catholic vote will become Democratic as demographics shift?

While many Hispanics are Catholic, Protestant evangelicalism is on the rise among them. And while many Hispanic Catholics do, indeed, vote Democrat, Florida’s large and powerful population of Cuban Republicans — many of whom are Catholic — underscores how hard it is to make generalizations about the Latinx community and its future impact on American politics. 

When it comes to the issues that inform voting choices, most Catholics tend to follow their political party’s platform over the church’s stance, according to data from Pew Research Center.

For example, when it comes to abortion, most Catholics believe it to be “morally wrong,” but a majority also believe it should be legal, Pew reports. And for many Catholics, the phrase “pro-life” doesn’t just mean “anti-abortion.” Rather, it signals a holistic philosophy that aligns some with the Democrats — as shown by the words of one Catholic voter speaking at a recent panel on “Faithful Citizenship.”

The sanctuary in St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ogden is pictured on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. The church is getting a new roof thanks to a donation from the estate of a deceased parishioner. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s not the Catholic vote that matters. It’s Catholic voters.

“I have long said and written in my publications that there is really no such thing as a quote unquote Catholic vote,” says Rozell, of George Mason University and the author or editor of over two dozen books about politics and religion, among other topics. 

Historically, there was more of a solidified Catholic vote, he explains, particularly when most Catholics were urban immigrants working blue-collar jobs. Back then, they joined labor unions and aligned more with the Democratic Party. But as they moved on and up, their loyalties began to shift. More cultural shifts in the 1960s and 1970s began to chip away at the “Catholic vote” and then came the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, which forced them confront a central tenet of their faith. 

Today the “Catholic vote” needs to be broken down into subgroups, Rozell says.  

And though there is no Catholic vote, it still matters, as E.J. Dionne wrote for the Brookings Institution back in 2000. “There is no ‘Catholic vote’ in the sense of a bloc that moves predictably toward one party or the other,” he said. “Catholics are the ultimate swing vote.”

“Catholics are also the ultimate ‘cross-pressured’ group,” Dionne explained two decades ago. “Many blue-collar and lower-middle-class Catholics are tugged toward the Democrats on issues of social justice and workers’ rights; but when it comes to family and cultural values, including abortion, they lean toward the Republicans. ... These pressures and ambivalences make Catholics potentially disruptive for both parties.” 

But while there still isn’t a national, monolithic “Catholic vote,” there are some states where there are enough Catholics to make a difference, according to Mark M. Gray, a professor at Georgetown and director of Catholic Polls at Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. 

“What I think it is safe to say about 2016 is that the Catholic vote split and we are not really sure which candidate had an advantage. However, when you look at specific states in the exit polls you see some states in the Midwest and Florida where Catholics did carry Trump to a win,” Gray told the Deseret News in an email. 

Gray points to two states in particular that are also battlegrounds this year — Michigan and Florida — arguing that Trump couldn’t have carried those states, and thus the Electoral College, without appealing to Catholic voters. 

Bishop Oscar Solis and Deacon Guillermo Mendez bless palms at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 5, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What are Catholic voters talking about today?

A “Faithful Citizenship” panel hosted by Georgetown University last week offered a glimpse at how Catholic voters themselves are approaching the 2020 election.

Mary FioRito is the Cardinal George fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an attorney by training. For much of her life, FioRito was an ardent Democrat. But she’s voted Republican in recent years.

“For me,” FioRito continues, “it’s not so much a vote for Trump but when I look at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ platform, they are not neutral on abortion.” She calls some Democratic politicians’ stance on the issue “the kind of extremism that pushed a lifelong Democrat like me into voting for President Trump.”

But Karina DeAvila says it’s “naive and almost irresponsible to think that there is only one issue that defines an election.” The daughter of Mexican immigrants, DeAvila is the vice president of the Young Democrats of Will County, Illinois.

While the Trump administration has stood against abortion, she says, “it has restored the federal death penalty,” created conditions that endanger the lives of immigrants and refugees, and seeks “to take away health care” from the neediest. 

“The Democrats aren’t perfect,” she contends. “But Biden is the best choice that Catholics and the American people have in 2020.” 

John Carr, founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, says he identifies with both FioRito and DeAvila’s positions.

“What’s a pro-life, social justice ... Catholic to do?” he asks. 

“For me, there are two intrinsic evils that are front and center: one is abortion, one is racism,” says Carr, adding that Trump’s immigration policies have deepened racial divides in the country.

“For me, electing the president who will fight racism — not make it worse — is the moral imperative,” Carr says, adding, “I vote for him (Biden) in spite of his position on abortion and that imposes responsibilities on me to resist that policy agenda if he becomes president.” 

Carr, who served as a director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for more than two decades and who helped bishops write “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” says that “Forming Consciences” focuses on “prudence and conscience:”

“Conscience, what we hear in our heart — what our faith compels us to do — and prudence, how we act on it,” Carr explains, “They (the bishops) outlined in a real sense what the church should be: political but not partisan, principled but not ideological, civil but not silent, and engaged but not used.”

He adds, “It turns out that the most countercultural thing the church teaches in this area may not be that all life is sacred, it may not be that the poor ought to come first, or that war ought to be a last resort, it’s that politics is a good thing and we have an obligation to participate.”