2020 revisited: Repeat after me, White Catholic voters, White Catholic voters …

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The two main November exit polls showed Joseph Biden, the first Catholic elected U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, won either 52% or 49% support among Catholics over-all.

That’s quite the plummet from 1960, when the Gallup Poll found J.F.K. scored 78 percent. 

Reporters covering either politics or religion pay heed: Other remarkable data appear in the first batch of 2020 findings from the Harvard University-based Cooperative Election Study (CES), with more due in July. Though Hispanic and other minority Catholics went only 30% for Donald Trump (up from 26% in 2016), white Catholics gave the Republican impressive 59% support over their fellow church member, up a notch from 57% in 2016. 


The massive CES sample of 61,000 allows good breakdowns by religion (also a highly useful feature with many Pew Research surveys). The CES data were explored for Religion Unplugged by ubiquitous political scientist Ryan Burge, a GetReligion contributor. 

The Guy once again preaches to the U.S. media that those white Catholics are the nation’s largest chunk of swing voters who can decide competitive elections except in Protestant tracts of the Southeast, and that they deserve more attention than the lavishly covered white “evangelicals,” perennial knee-jerk Republicans who may edge up or down but never “swing.”

That was true in 2016. It was true again in 2020. It’s especially interesting to look for patterns among generic “Catholic voters” and voters who are active, Mass-attending Catholics.

White Catholics’ inexorable move this generation away from the Democratic Party loyalty of their forebears is a major political earthquake equal to the collapse of the Democrats’ “Solid South” (which encompassed white evangelicals in former times) and, more recently, the party’s increasing reliance upon non-religious voters. 

Other religious voting blocs have been quite stable over time. Trump not only gained the customary GOP support from white evangelicals (80%) — similar to numbers for Romney, McCain and Bush 43 — but from Latter-day Saints (66%) and Orthodox Christians (59%). White “mainline” Protestants’ impact is weakened because their numbers are declining and they split 50-50 on politics, with a serious gap seen between pulpits and pews.

The growing center of today’s Democratic Party coalition consists of non-religious “nones,” with low 2020 Trump backing among atheists (11%), agnostics (18%) and those who are religiously “nothing in particular” (34%). Likewise, Black Protestants (9%), Jews (29%) and Muslims (15%) had the usual lack of enthusiasm for a Republican. Non-white evangelicals gave Trump 34%. 

Over history, we lack polling breakdowns between white and non-white Catholics, but the CARA center at Georgetown University compiles (.pdf here) presidential vote data for Catholics collectively from major polls going back to 1952. 

In CARA’s average of polls, Catholics bounced back and forth. They gave majority support to Republicans Eisenhower (1956), Nixon (1972), Reagan (1980 and 1984), Bush 41 (1988), with close to an even split for Bush 43 (2000 and 2004), and Trump (2016 and 2020). Democrats were helped by the growth of Hispanic Catholic immigration but, again, other polling shows white Catholics counterbalance that with growing majorities identifying as Republican. 

What happened? Polls consistently knock down the social-issues theory. Contrary to what some suppose, Catholics as a whole are only slightly more conservative than the general public on abortion and LGBTQ issues, with weekly worshippers moreso. Primo political scientist John C. Green observes that most Catholics do not vote on the basis of the parties’ disagreement over legalized abortion but, rather, this helped uncouple them from Democratic nostalgia if they liked Republicans on totally different issues.

But other factors must be at work among voters who identify as Catholic in some way. What factors? That question is right at the top of the agenda for journalists and should be for Democratic Party strategists. The latter may figure that church participation, membership and identity have been falling noticeably since the start of the 21st Century, so who cares? But millions of religious voters, especially Catholics, remain potentially up for grabs and — as Republicans prove over and over — are relatively simple to mobilize at the state and local levels.

It’s commonplace for analysts to say white Catholics went Republican as they gained higher levels of education and moved up the socio-economic ladder. No doubt. But The Guy thinks in the current climate many Catholics sense what we might call a respect gap amid continual incidents of antipathy toward claims of religious rights amid acrimonious culture wars.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a committed and conservative Catholic, gave voice to this idea recently. He thinks traditional religion faces “a militant and superstitious secularism,” our “great universities are increasingly hostile” toward cultural conservatives and with Big Tech monopolies in the lead, corporations are turning “against cultural and religious forms of conservatism.”

Stay tuned. This story isn’t going away.

FIRST IMAGE: Graphic from an EWTN Catholic voter poll.

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