Why you should care
Because this demographic has a surprising success rate when predicting presidents.
The beef between the Don and the pontiff — Pope Francis suggesting that it’s not very Christian to build a wall, Donald J. Trump responding that ISIS will attack the Vatican if he’s not in the Oval Office — has quelled, for now. But if Trump is serious about becoming President Trump, it may behoove him to show a bit more reverence to the man in white. After all …
The candidate who wins the Catholic vote has also won the popular vote in every election since 1972.
That’s four decades of picking the winner, according to exit poll estimates, from Nixon to Obama. What makes the Catholic vote unique is its ability to mimic the trends of the American populace as a whole, says Robert P. Jones of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. Add that to the the fact that Catholics make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population — and have a solid history of actually showing up at the polls — and you can understand why the demographic is highly sought by campaigners.
But does the correlation between the Catholic vote and the presidency suggest that papacy can sway an American election?
Yes and no. That record “is a little bit illusory,” Jones says, because the Catholic vote isn’t monolithic, even if its leadership appears to be. The church’s political divide runs along ethnic lines, which, by the way, holds true for the nation, too. In 2012, that split meant white laypeople supported Romney, while their brown brothers in faith overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Catholics might be good predictors because their demographics reflect the general population almost perfectly:
- On race: In 2014, 41 percent of Catholics were Hispanic, compared to 38 percent generally.
- On education: 26 percent of Catholics held a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus 27 percent overall.
- On earnings: 47 percent of Catholics reported income levels under $50,000, compared to 55 percent overall.
The vote has changed — and become less associated with a single party — as Catholics have “become more assimilated into the overall population,” says Steve Krueger, president of the Catholic Democrats advocacy organization. Plus, as the Pew Research Center reported this year, millennials as a whole are less religious than any previous generation, and that reality affects young Catholics, too. (While neither Trump’s campaign nor the Vatican responded to a request for comment, the Pope’s spokesman released a statement after the wall remark, saying that building bridges versus walls is “his generic view, coherent with the nature of solidarity from the gospel.”)
The party gap will only get wider, especially if you’re a Catholic, thanks to a particularly divisive election year. “This is the church that cares about defending life in the womb and immigrants,” says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Jonathan Reyes, director of the justice, peace and human development department. “Just in those two issues, there is no easy home.” In its official election-year reflection on voting faithfully, the church agrees that its vision isn’t contained in any one candidate or party. Adherents are free to decide — based on their conscience — which priorities most closely align with their faith, which is why it’s hard to round up Catholics, as a whole, into any one party’s back corner.