What Catholic Vote?

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Today’s NYT article on abortion and the Catholic vote by John Broder is pretty inadequate. The back-and-forth on abortion in Democratic presidential politics is OK, but the account of Catholic electoral behavior leaves a good deal to be desired. For starters, Broder does not differentiate between Latino and white Catholics, the former as solid a Democratic constituency as exists, the latter the swingiest of swing ones. This would help make some sense of the table of swing states (unfortunately not included in the online version), which shows the vote differential among Catholics in the 2004 presidential election ranging from a 27-point margin for Bush in Virginia to a 25-point margin for Kerry in Washington state. Not that the white-Latino difference accounts for everything. Indeed, white Catholics dominate the Catholic vote in both Virginia and Washington state. If mostly white Catholic constituencies can vary by as much as 52 points from one state to another, there’s a real question of whether there’s such a thing as even a “white Catholic vote” in any meaningful sense.
Region counts for a lot here. Survey data shows, for example, that white Catholics in the South are a lot more conservative than white Catholics in the Pacific Northwest. (For those interested in the intersection of religion, region, and politics, I have to plug our new book, One Nation, Divisible.) But even within regions, the white Catholic vote can vary a good deal. In Michigan, John Kerry carried Catholics by one percentage point whereas next door in Ohio, Bush carried them by 11 points. Why? Because white Catholics in Michigan include a lot of East Europeans with union backgrounds in the auto industry, whereas Catholicism in Ohio is dominated by conservative small business types who trace their roots to Germany. Speaking of the Midwest, Broder quotes Brookings’ William Galston as saying that while Catholics constitute a quarter of the voting population nationally, they live “in disproportionate numbers in the swing states of the Midwest.” Well, no. The swing states of the Midwest, as the Times‘ chart shows, feature Catholics in numbers exactly proportional to the country as a whole. OK, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota are a few points above average, Missouri and Iowa a few points below, and Ohio just average. (It’s in the Northeast and the Southwest where Catholics constitute a disproportionately large share of the population.) Um, and in those Midwestern states where Catholics have the biggest demographic hand to play, Kerry won.
So yes, Virginia, showing a more pro-life-friendly side may help Democrats peel off some Catholic votes here, there, and the next place. And in a close election, a few percentage points worth of Catholics in a swing state could well make the difference. But there’s no religious grouping in the country–not evangelical or mainline Protestants, not Jews or Mormons, more subject to the vagaries of geography and ethnicity than Catholics.