Robert Novak–The Catholic Vote: Does It Swing?

Note: Robert (Bob) Novak was America’s premiere political reporter for decades until he died at age 78 in 2007. His work, starting at the Chicago Sun-Times and continuing through the Wall Street Journal, CNN’s “Crossfire,” and Fox News, is well-chronicled.  In 1998, the year of this article, Novak was received into the Catholic Church by Msgr. Peter Vaghi and Rev. C.J. McCloskey.  His wife, Geraldine, had been attending St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, DC for several years, but it was some books given to Novak by Jeff Bell, a prominent Catholic political consultant, that began his journey. Bob and I became friends shortly after I came to DC in 1995 but it wasn’t until later we began having regular breakfasts at the Army Navy Club. Eventually, I would accompany Bob and Geraldine on their first, and second, trip to the Holy Land. This article was written at my request for a special issue of Crisis Magazine on the Catholic vote which would turn to be perhaps the most influential issue ever published.

Robert D. Novak

Published November 11, 1998

The conventional wisdom among politicians and journalists for much of the past half-century has been that Catholics, 44 million currently of voting age, comprise a swing vote.

As the 1950s began, Catholics were departing their traditional home in the Democratic Party to support Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower for president. That was followed by a massive return of Catholic Democrats—accompanied by a good many Catholic Republicans—to vote for their cocommunicant, Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960. The gradual attrition of Catholic support for Democratic presidential candidates climaxed with heavy backing for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

But by 1996, Catholics were supporting Democrat Bill Clinton’s reelection much more strongly than other Americans; among Catholics, it was 54 percent for Clinton, 38 percent for Republican Bob Dole, and 8 percent for independent Ross Perot. That’s not the whole story. While Clinton ran worse among many voter groups in 1996 than he had in 1992 (including seniors and youth, at opposite ends of the age spectrum), he did better among Catholics: a gain of 2.3 million votes compared with Dole’s gain of 400,000 and Perot’s loss of 3.3 million. Of the 23 states with a Catholic vote above the national average, Dole carried only two: Texas and Colorado. Had Dole run just a little better among Catholics, his supporters surmised, he might well have been elected.

Is There a Catholic Vote?

Thus, at a time when the conventional wisdom has assumed a divorce between Catholics and the Democratic Party, it is no exaggeration to say that the Catholic vote elected Bill Clinton. In the Midwest (where there is a plurality of Catholics) and the Northeast, this vote was indispensable to the near-sweep Clinton had in these two regions. The apparent oscillation of the Catholic vote over nearly 40 years raises difficult, even troubling questions.

•If Catholics appear always to be on the side of the winner, whether it be Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, is there no driving principle that informs the choice? Or, are Catholics really no different from other American voters? If Catholics preferred Clinton in greater numbers than their fellow citizens, does that mean that they prefer a candidate who is irrevocably tied to abortion rights, gay rights, and racial preferences and is irrevocably opposed to school choice and school prayer?

•Does this then demolish the Republican concept of the Catholic voter as a natural partner of Protestant fundamentalists and evangelists in a religious coalition?

•Put bluntly, what evidence is there that there are distinctive political characteristics that bind together Catholics sufficiently to form a bloc vote with even some elements of coherence? Is there really a Catholic vote?

The only logical answer to this paradoxical question is that there are two Catholic votes—just as there are two kinds of Catholics in America, active and inactive religiously.

The active Catholic attends Mass every Sunday, probably subscribes to religious publications, may well belong to the Knights of Columbus and the Legions of Mary, and will tend to conform to the views of the Catholic bishops, at least on abortion.

The inactive Catholic is an inconstant communicant, likely is not a member of any parish church, and is cut off from the views of the bishops—particularly when it comes to abortion.

This distinction makes some sense out of what has been the otherwise inexplicable political migration of Catholics during the past half-century. Prior to that time, there was not much swinging by Catholic voters; they were—with some notable though temporary exceptions—Democrats.

Political History

The first migratory wave of Catholics in the 19th century was composed of Irish fleeing the potato famine and political exclusion. They settled into the Democratic Party in their new nation’s big cities as a power base against the American establishment—Protestant and Republican—that excluded them from power and privileges. German Catholics, many fleeing post-1848 political repression throughout Europe, followed the Irish and were generally their political allies in the Democratic machines.

The Irish-German Catholic loyalty to the Democrats was interrupted by Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s Anglophile policies and intervention in World War I, with Republicans scoring major Catholic gains at the presidential and lower levels in 1920. By 1928, when the Democratic nominee for president was urban Catholic Al Smith of New York City, Catholic voters returned to the fold and for the most part stayed there during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era and Harry Truman’s 1948 election.

But beneath this seemingly steadfast adherence to their ancestral party, Catholics were restless. They were unhappy that the Democrats seemed to have become the liberal party of blacks, Jews, and silk-stocking Protestants, as reflected in international policy toward Communism and domestic policy toward the welfare state. Eisenhower ran well in Catholic areas in both of his landslides over Adlai Stevenson, which began the political analysis of a Catholic swing vote.

But through the last ten presidential elections, there has been marked difference in the voting patterns of active and inactive Catholics, as the numbers of the latter rose dramatically. In 1960, 73 percent of Catholics still said they regularly attended Mass. The figure dropped to 64 percent in 1964 and to an all-time low of 40 percent in 1988, before returning to 47 percent in 1992 and 46 percent in 1996. That signifies a stabilized base of active Catholic voters for the past decade. Here is a rundown of the voting patterns of the kinds of Catholics in those ten elections:

1960:With John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic nominee for president since Al Smith, Catholics returned to their Democratic roots—especially the active Catholics. Kennedy won 83 percent of the Catholic vote (comprising 22 percent of the electorate), getting 87 percent of religiously active Catholics and 69 percent of inactive Catholics. This nonideological support from his coreligionists elected Kennedy. He lost to Republican Richard M. Nixon among both religiously active Protestants and inactive non-Catholics.

1964: Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson for the most part kept the Catholic voters he inherited from Kennedy. But the 79 percent he received represented a resumed Catholic erosion in the Democratic Party. Actually, he received a higher percentage of the inactive Catholics than had Kennedy, but dropped among the active Catholics. Also, the intensity of Democratic support among active Catholics was diminishing. In 1960, 52 percent of active Catholics described themselves as “strong” Democrats; in 1964, the figure was 32 percent.

1968: The migration of Democrats out of the Democratic Party continued, though less so among active Catholics. Democrat Hubert Humphrey fell well below the JFK/LBJ totals, but he still won 57 percent—divided by 58 percent from actives and 52 percent from inactives. Active Catholics were still supporting Vietnam policy more strongly than the national average, and that may have contributed to Humphrey’s residual strength among that group.

1972: In the year of President Nixon’s reelection landslide, the Catholic vote for a presidential candidate fell to the national average for the first time. Democrat George McGovern received only 39 percent among both active and inactive Catholics, reflecting the national antipathy to what was perceived as a fringe candidate. Little more than half of the nation’s Catholics described themselves as Democrats, though their ancestral hostility to Republicanism led them into independent ranks. Asked for the first time by the National Election Study to list their ideology, only 19 percent of active Catholics said they were “liberal” compared with 31 percent of inactives. Stating a “conservative” preference were 36 percent of actives and 30 percent of inactives.

1976: This post-Watergate, post-Vietnam election, paradoxically, showed Catholics rallying for Democrat Jimmy Carter—a born-again, Protestant Southerner—with 57 percent and 56 percent from actives and inactives, respectively. Both kinds of Catholics were clearly repelled by the Nixon scandals, but their ideological split was becoming more obvious. For the first time, a plurality of active Catholics (42 percent) called themselves conservatives; inactives were evenly divided between “liberals” and “conservatives.”

1980: Now the ideological division of American Catholics became clear. A majority of actives (54 percent) voted for Ronald Reagan, marking the first time this group had given a Republican presidential candidate a higher vote than the general electorate. A plurality of inactives (48 percent) backed President Carter. The party preference of all Catholics dropped from 49 percent to 42 percent, with some of them going to the Republicans (21 percent among actives, 11 percent among inactives).

1984: In his landslide against Democrat Walter F. Mondale, President Reagan won equal support—and lots of it—from active and inactive Catholics: 58 percent, one percentage point below the national share. Here was a national sweep that obliterated religious voting lines. Stated Democratic affiliation of Catholics fell to what is still an all-time low of 37 percent. For the first time, Catholics voted for the Republican nominee with a higher percentage than the country at large.

1988: Republican George Bush received 2.4 million fewer Catholic votes, including 2.1 million actives, than Reagan had four years earlier. In defeat, Democrat Michael Dukakis cut into the church-going Catholic, labor-union, and lower income households that had gone heavily for Reagan—in short, the famous “Reagan Democrats.” But Bush retained Reagan’s inroads among the inactives.

1992: In this year the gap between Catholics who go to church and those who don’t became an abyss. The inactives liked the looks of Bill Clinton so much that they backed him against President Bush, 51 percent to 28 percent in the three-way race with Ross Perot. But active Catholics who had turned away from Bush in 1988 did not like Clinton either; it was Bush over Clinton, 42 percent to 37 percent, among the actives.

1996: Beneath the superficial indication that the Catholic vote had reelected Bill Clinton while white Protestants overwhelmingly supported Bob Dole’s losing campaign lies the Catholic division. The inactives backed Clinton, 56 percent to 33 percent; actives supported Dole, 47 percent to 44 percent. This year also produced evidence of an ideological split. For the first time since the left-right preference began to be tested in 1972, half of active Catholics identified themselves as “conservative” and, also for the first time, a plurality of inactive called themselves “liberal.” Self-identified Democrats constituted 41 percent: the same as 1992, up from the low of 38 percent in 1988 and down from the 40-year high of 64 percent starting the period in 1960.

The 1996 Catholic vote was 29 percent of the national total, the highest in this 40-year period, but divided evenly among actives (15 percent) and inactives (14 percent).

Active Catholic Identity

The reality of two increasingly distinct Catholic votes should provide clear lessons for Republican politicians.

Inactive Catholics are an amorphous blob, undetectable from the rest of the electorate and certainly not classifiable as a voting bloc to be courted.

Active Catholics certainly do not constitute a monolithic bloc in the nature of African-Americans or even pietistic white Protestants. But they do have distinctive characteristics—including an anti-abortion position that belies claims by pro-choice Catholics.

In 1976, the National Election Study asked voters about abortion for the first time—and again the active/inactive dichotomy was apparent. Among active Catholics, 88 percent opposed permissive abortion laws, compared with 53 percent by inactives. By 1980, the anti-abortion bloc among active Catholics had declined to 75 percent.

In 1996, the National Election Study had changed the questions to make comparisons unrewarding, but the gap among Catholics widened. Enactment into law of a woman’s right to an abortion was favored by 26 percent of active Catholics but 50 percent of inactives.

The body of active Catholic voters cuts across economic lines and social status. Although they are patriotic, that is not a live issue with the end of the Cold War. What is relevant today, they are disturbed by the decline of traditional social values and maintain a belief in absolute moral values. As such, they prefer the conservative position on abortion, school choice, school prayer, and affirmative action.

If that profile seems familiar, it is because it is not much different from the outlook of born-again, fundamentalist, and evangelical Christians. In 1996, these pietistic Protestants constituted 18 percent of the electorate—combining with active Catholics for a 33 percent share.

What this coalition feels about the size and function of government is unclear and surely not monolithic. What is certain is that these voters will not vote for a pro-choice candidate opposed to school vouchers and school prayer who advocates racial preferences. They supported the losing Republican candidates in 1992 and 1996 but not in sufficient numbers to avert the Clinton victories.

Will the Republican candidate and managers in 2000 be confused by lumping together the voting preferences and ideologies of all Catholics, active and inactive, and seek a centrist position on social issues while avowedly pursuing a phantom Catholic vote? The answer will shape the politics of the 21st century.

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