Camelot Only Comes but Once? John F. Kerry and the Catholic Vote

Article excerpt

Before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the tales that you remember.... That once there was a fleeting wisp.... Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.

--Lyrics from the 1960 Broadway musical Camelot

Despite the volume of ink and sound bite noise generated in discussions of the "Catholic vote" during the 2004 presidential campaign, there is but one simple empirical lesson that the election results reinforced: on the long scale of modern U.S. electoral history the Catholic vote, much like the legend of Camelot, was a "fleeting wisp" most evident with the election of John E Kennedy in 1960. (1) However, it ceased to be a cohesive bloc more than forty years ago and, as a group, Catholic voters have not always been the consistent "swing vote" group that they are often portrayed to be.

The election of John E Kennedy was truly an extraordinary and liberating event for U.S. Catholics (Dolan 1992, 422). As Crews (1993) notes, "An invisible barrier had been shattered. Across the nation, Catholics sensed that they had finally achieved unquestioned first-class status as loyal citizens" (p. 139). After enduring more than 170 years of political anti-Catholicism in various forms and degrees, (2) eight in ten Catholic voters supported Kennedy at the ballot box in 1960. At the time, Converse et al. (1961) noted "the vote polarized along religious lines in a degree which we have not seen in the course of previous sample survey studies" (p. 273). Slightly more than 118,000 votes separated Kennedy from Nixon nationally and it would have been a daunting challenge for him to win with anything less than 80 percent of the Catholic vote. Converse et al. (1961) estimate that Kennedy's vote among Catholics was 17 percentage points higher than what an average non-Catholic candidate could have expected (p. 275).

As John F. Kerry's candidacy began to take shape in late 2003, it was an open question as to how Catholics might react if he were to be the first Catholic since Kennedy to win one of the two major parties' nominations. Few expected that Kerry would be able to attract eight in ten Catholic voters, yet most would not have bet that he might lose the Catholic vote. This article puts that latter result--which will likely always be in question--into context by first introducing existing theory and evidence and then proceeding to comparisons of the Catholic vote in 1960, 2000, and 2004.

The U.S. Presidency and the "Catholic Vote"

Although John E Kennedy's election is often considered a breakthrough moment overcoming a long tradition of overt political anti-Catholicism, it is a misconception that Catholics were somehow systematically kept out of U.S. government, even as it began and the Catholic population was very small. (3) In 1790, just 1 percent of the U.S. population was Catholic and as of 1840 it was still only 4 percent (Prendergast 1999, 2). Yet, things began to change in the 1850s as waves of immigration began from many predominantly Catholic countries (4)--first from Europe and then followed by Latin America as well as Asia and Africa in the twentieth century (ongoing)--which would result in Catholics never again being less than 10 percent of the U.S. population.

Although Kennedy was the first Catholic to win, he was of course not the first to run. Al Smith was the first, getting the Democratic party's nomination in 1928 when Catholics still made up less than 20 percent of the population. Smith's Catholicism was the central issue of that campaign and similar to how Catholics would support Kennedy three decades later, he benefited from a huge Catholic turnout. Although Prendergast (1999) estimates Catholics made up only a third of Smith's votes, he concludes that "in no presidential election, before or since, have Catholics been so close to unanimity in their choice of a candidate" (p. 96). …