How Many Votes Has the Pope?

John Paul II, George W. Bush and the Changing Catholic Voter


George W. Bush was the first sitting president to attend a papal funeral. President Carter sent his mother to Pope John Paul I's 1978 funeral. Such symbolic change speaks volumes about the evolution in Catholic America's voting habits over the past quarter-century and about Pope John Paul II's role in that conversion.

John Paul II's influence is particularly striking considering Catholic America's checkered political past. In 1928, Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith suffered electorally for his Catholicism. Many non-Catholic voters assumed that, once in the Oval Office, Smith's loyalty to the Constitution would take a back seat to his loyalty to Rome. John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected president in 1960 on the back of 83 percent of all Catholic votes cast—votes that overwhelmed residual non-Catholic fear of papal influence within the White House.

Catholic voting habits began to shift less than a generation ago. Through the 1960s, Catholics formed one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. However, by 1972, cultural upheaval produced then-uncommon Catholic support for a Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon. The trend away from the Democrats has largely continued for three decades.

Pope John Paul II exerted considerable direct and indirect influence upon this electoral shift. This reflected, in part, his sky-high favorability rating among American Catholics, ratings that consistently hovered around 90 percent. The pope also continued a tradition, dating to the 1930s, whereby the Catholic Church sought to influence U.S. government policy and political debate, a development reinforced by the Second Vatican Council of the early-to-mid-1960s.

Until fairly recently, the Catholic Church, principally through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, sought greater government involvement in the economy and higher government spending on social programs. Although he shared the NCCB's antipathy to the free market, John Paul II also played a significant role in converting many conservative Catholics into reliable Republican voters.

Inspired by the pope's political assertiveness, American Catholic leaders became increasingly active on social issues. Church leaders utilized the political communications tools at their disposal, namely the hundreds of Catholic publications and diocesan newsletters (with combined circulation in the tens of millions), in tandem with concerted congressional lobbying campaigns, and the tacit endorsement of individual parishes being mobilized for conservative political purposes.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the NCCB published a pro-life guide to the election that drew heavily upon John Paul II's writings. Some Church leaders asserted that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) should be denied communion because he is pro-choice. Whereas JFK was viewed in some quarters as too Catholic, Kerry was deemed insufficiently Catholic on issues critical to conservatives.

This sea change demonstrated that the contemporary Catholic vote is now the most important swing vote in American politics. In the modern era, Catholics are the bellwether voters: as go Catholics, so goes the nation. Since 1972, they have always cast their votes for the popular vote winner.

Hence, the Republican Party's "Catholic Strategy." Bush strategist Karl Rove identified the Catholic vote as central to his long-term plan to convert swathes of traditional Democratic voters, thereby transforming the Republicans into the majority party. Throughout the 2004 campaign, Rove maintained that, if Bush won the Catholic vote, he would be reelected. Rove was right.

Rove sought to turn out several million additional Catholic voters. Last year, Catholic turnout was 63 percent, up from 57 percent four years earlier, and constituted more than one-in-four voters nationwide, voters disproportionately distributed in key battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. Bush, a Methodist, impressively won 52 percent of the Catholic vote versus 47 percent for John Kerry, only the third Catholic to win a major party's presidential nomination. Only one Democrat since 1952 (Walter Mondale in 1984) had previously lost the Catholic vote by such a margin.

Bush's lead among religiously active Catholics grew from nine points in 2000 to 13 points in 2004. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics (one in five voters), Bush went from a seven point lead in 2000 to a 13 point lead four years later. Among Hispanic Catholics, the Democratic candidate's lead shrank from 32 to 19 points. Bush won 54 percent of Catholic votes in Ohio and 57 percent of Catholic votes in Florida.

However, the American population is trending toward less religious observance, not more, and liberals attend church far less frequently than conservatives. Given this reality, how did the Republican campaign successfully bring the pope into electoral play?

As president, Bush adroitly employed networking, symbolism, and substance to maximum effect. Upon inauguration, Bush began regular networking meetings with a conservative Catholic advisory group and his campaign later benefited from the support of well-funded conservative Catholic political action committees. Symbolically, Bush gave the 2001 commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. As president, Bush never ceased to court the pope, meeting with him several times, liberally quoting his words, and awarding him the Medal of Freedom.

Substantively, Bush emphasized the issues upon which Pope John Paul II and he agreed, going so far as to borrow the pope's "culture of life" sound bite to refer broadly to socially conservative positions on abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. Of course, the pope and the president disagreed vehemently on Iraq, the death penalty, and many aspects of economic policy. John Paul II once argued that "savage capitalism" is little better than "savage Marxism."

Bush astutely chose to ignore such serious cleavages, emphasizing the pope's socially conservative side. Conservative Catholic leaders were emboldened by the pope's lead on social issues and, in turn, they encouraged traditionalist Catholics to support Bush and fellow socially conservative Republicans.

In June 2004, Bush dashed off to the Vatican to meet John Paul II to exhort the pope to encourage American bishops to criticize Kerry's stance on various Catholic-sensitive social issues. At that meeting, the pope told Bush, "I follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and family." The Bush campaign subsequently placed the pope's picture on its campaign website under the headline "Catholics for Bush." The Republican National Committee web site contained entire sections tailored to conservative Catholic voters.

Over four years, the Bush campaign built a nationwide network of more than 50,000 precinct level Catholic "team leaders" who introduced fellow church going Catholics to the Republican Party. Catholic outreach operations included direct mail sent to parish registry lists, literature tables outside church sanctuaries, and email lists that publicized the Republican Party's pro-life position.

But does Republican electoral success confirm that the more pivotal Catholic voter is becoming a more socially conservative voter? No, it does not. In fact, traditional Catholics are not gaining in numbers. Regular church going, traditionalist Catholics remain a minority. Nevertheless, they are the Catholics most receptive to papal (and presidential) influence. For example, 60 percent of conservative Catholics believe in papal infallibility. The secret to conservative Catholics' electoral influence is that, in addition to being disproportionately located in the electorally critical rural and suburban Midwest, they have become far more politically active on their high priority issues.

The president and the pope's mutual emphasis upon social issues emboldened these Catholics to abandon voting habits based upon traditional bread-and-butter issues and, instead, to base voting more upon social concerns. Consequently, traditionalists increasingly perceive moral conservatism to be the political instrument of their faith. By contrast, liberal Catholics remain largely Democratic in their voting habits but suffer electorally as they are not nearly as politically organized or mobilized.

In terms of party identification, the unambiguous trend is for Catholics to identify less with the Democrats and more with the Republicans. In 1960, 82 percent of Catholics identified themselves as Democrats. Twenty years later, only 46 percent identified with the Democrats. In the mid-1980s, Democrats led Republicans among white Catholics by 7 points in party identification; by the mid-1990s, the gap had largely disappeared.

In addition to responding to both papal and presidential political marketing campaigns, Catholics are drifting towards the Republicans for sociological reasons. Catholics become more Republican as they become better educated, wealthier, and more suburban. Interestingly, the Republicans have experienced the steadiest Catholic vote gains among younger Americans, particularly males, who are most attracted to the Republican rhetoric espousing fiscal conservatism.

John Paul II's political influence extended beyond Catholic America. This reflects in no small measure a steady decline in anti-Catholic bigotry. Opinion polls reveal that evangelicals viewed Pope John Paul II more favorably than either the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. It also reflects conservative evangelicals' newfound willingness to ally themselves with conservative Catholics on social issues. In recent years, leading conservative religious leaders heaped praise upon the pope's role in and influence in the abortion and gay marriage debates.

The forthcoming selection of a new pope will reverberate throughout American politics on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, the faith-based initiative, judicial nominations, and stem cell research. Ominously, perhaps, for the Republicans, the electoral deal between Catholic America and the Republican party is only partially sealed. A new pope could potentially unravel this socially conservative coalition.

Some conservative Republicans await the white smoke above the Vatican, signifying the successful conclusion of the papal conclave, with equal trepidation to many liberal Catholics. A more theologically liberal pontiff—or one as conservative but less politically interventionist, or simply less charismatic than John Paul II—may provide an opportunity for the Democrats to regain some lost ground. Conversely, many on the Karl Rove wing of the Republican Party pray nightly for a conservative Latin American pope to encourage further Hispanic defections, or at least a reliably conservative choice.

In assessing Pope John Paul II's impact upon American politics, one is struck by the contrast between his influences in different parts of the world. He clearly helped to advance the cause of political and economic liberty in Eastern Europe. However, his political contribution within the American context advanced those who advocate a greater role for the state in shepherding individuals all the way through their private lives.

Some 175 years ago, Catholics comprised less than 5 percent of our nation's population. At the time, the political sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville presciently noted Catholicism's propensity to flourish on American soil. Today, there are more than 65 million Catholics in the United States, totaling 23 percent of the nation's population.

That President Bush may owe his current position to the growth and growing influence of Catholic America demonstrates the strength of modern American pluralism and traditionalism's continuing resonance among an important segment of the American electorate, a traditionalism that Pope John Paul II both visibly embodied and assiduously nurtured.