The defense of religious liberty will be a huge issue for Catholics this year. The new wisdom is that Catholics vote just like everybody else. That purported wisdom isn’t wise.
The Catholic vote differs in four decisive ways from the Protestant, Jewish, and secular votes.
(1) The Catholic vote is concentrated mainly in the largest states in the Electoral College: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey.
(2) A larger proportion of Catholics than of any other religious group except Jews votes regularly, every election. In some jurisdictions (Chicago, Boston) Catholic voters have been known to vote at a rate of 104 percent or more when necessary, some of them after their natural deaths.
(3) In some key states, the Catholic vote, although tending more Democratic, is fairly evenly split between the Democrats and the Republicans. Keeping the Catholic vote for the Democrat down even to 52 percent may be enough to get a Republican elected.
And (4) — most important of all — in many states Catholic voters frequently swing between parties by margins of 3 to 6 percent. And even more in some years.
As political professionals know well, each swinger counts twice. Each takes a vote away from one column and puts it into the other. If on a national basis the 25 million Catholic votes (24 percent of all votes cast) swing by 1 million votes toward Romney and away from Obama, that gives Romney a net gain of 2 million votes in relation to his competitor, and Obama a net loss of 2 million. This year it seems more likely to be a swing of 2 million for Romney, a net loss to Obama of 4 million. And it may be even a larger swing, depending on how powerful the broad-based campaign to protect religious liberty turns out to be.
The historical record of these large swings helps to explain why the Catholic vote has gone with the winning side in so many elections since 1952. Put another way, the Catholic swing vote has more than any other decided the winner, just because it is of such significant numbers. No Democrat since 1952 (except for Clinton in 1992) has ever won the White House without a majority of the Catholic vote.
In some states, as noted above, Republicans do not have to win a majority of the Catholic vote to carry the state; they need only hold down the Democratic Catholic majority by two or three percentage points. In Pennsylvania, my home state, the rule among professionals was that if the Catholic vote for the Democrat could be held down to 52 percent, the Republican could take the state.
Percentage of Catholic Vote for Presidential Winners
- 1952: Eisenhower, 44%
- 1956: Eisenhower, 49%
- 1960: Kennedy, 78%
- 1964: Johnson, 76%
- 1968: Nixon, 33%
- 1972: Nixon, 52%
- 1976: Carter, 57%
- 1980: Reagan, 47%
- 1984: Reagan, 61%
- 1988: Bush, 49%
- 1992: Clinton, 47%
- 1996: Clinton, 55%
- 2000: Bush, 46%
- 2004: Bush, 48%
- 2008: Obama, 53%
(The figures above are from Gallup. In the three-way race of 1968, Nixon lost the Catholic vote to Hubert Humphrey by a margin of 59 percent to 33 percent, but managed to squeak out a victory, since much of the Southern Protestant vote went to George Wallace. In 1972, however, Mr. Nixon’s 52 percent broke the Democratic lock on the Catholic vote.)
Finally, it may be that in some years a particular factor affects a significant slice of Catholic voters more than most others — the chance to elect the first Catholic president in 1960, for instance.
And Catholics tend to identify themselves as Catholics long after they have ceased going to church (“born Catholic” or “non-practicing Catholic,” these tend to qualify their identity). The difference in voting patterns between Catholics who go to Mass at least weekly and those who don’t is in some matters (partial-birth abortion, e.g.) unusually large. In 2012, I expect the defense of religious liberty to cut as deeply against Obama as 3 million Catholic voters or more. Worth watching.
Michael Novak is distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University and co-author, with Jana Novak, of Washington’s God.