The Catholic Vote in '96: Can It Be Found in Church?

By Leege, David C. | Commonweal, September 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Vote in '96: Can It Be Found in Church?


Leege, David C., Commonweal


It is difficult to pick up a newsmagazine or newspaper without seeing some reference to the Republican courtship of the Catholic vote, or analyses of Catholics as swing voters, or even the claim that the 1996 election hinges on what Catholics decide. Much of this talk is inaccurate.

There is no monolithic "Catholic vote." The impact of Catholics as a bloc of the electorate is overrated. Nevertheless, younger Catholic voters could well determine the outcome of the 1996 presidential election. These apparently contrary claims are a function of two factors:

* Voting Catholics live mainly in the states with large electoral college votes where the election will be decided.

* Younger Catholics are less likely to pick up political cues at Mass, less likely to identify with the church's social teachings and are more likely to be Republican. On the other hand, and more interesting still, these younger Catholics are more moderate on social issues than either their parents or the cur@ rent Republican party. Finally, the most effective appeal to these swing voters will be more secular than religious.

Has there been a large movement of Catholics to the Republican cause? Pundits tend to focus on the Democratic party loyalties of Catholics in the early New Deal or look at the massive Catholic margin for Kennedy in 1960 and conclude from current figures that there has been a shift to the Republican party. Moreover, many journalists connect the church's teaching on abortion with the Republicans, anti-abortion plank and conclude that Catholics are closer to the Republican party's stances on family values and moral is sues than they are to the Democrats'. These conclusions are historically myopic and sociologically mistaken.

Catholic political history: A capsule look

Except for two electoral periods when they rallied to one of their own in the face of religious persecution, Catholic voters have been a diverse lot. Much of this diversity is the result of ethnic migrations and settlement patterns. This story has been told by many historians and needs only a short summary here.

The Irish were the American church's premier power brokers. They spoke English and understood Anglo-American political institutions. They became Democrats in response to religious persecution and the second-class citizenship perpetrated by the people who controlled the Whig, Know Nothing, Republican, and Progressive political parties. Their descendants have remained more Democratic than rising social status and economic success would have predicted.

When it came to politics, Italian women apparently listened to their Irish priests. But historically, Italian men tended to be anticlerical and became Republican. Italian men owned hauling trucks and vegetable farms. These respectively became the post-world War II trucking firms, suburban ban housing tracts, shopping malls, and financial institutions which shaped the powerful suburban Republican machines that now ring Northeastern cities.

German Catholics moved to the frontier very early, farming the heartland and settling the villages that became cities. Their politics were often the opposite of their German-Lutheran neighbors who were sometimes Republicans and sometimes Democrats. The anti-German hysteria of World War I, the anti-Catholicism of evangelical Protestants, and the Northern revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s - all connected to the Democratic party - did much to consolidate German-American Catholics in the Republican fold.

Other Eastern and Southern European Catholic immigrants first voted Republican because their plant managers marched them to the polls with instructions to cast the Republican ballot and because the big-city ethnic machines early in this century were often Republican. The reaction to Al Smith's candidacy anchored them in the Democratic party, though some drifted to the Republicans when the cold war heated up.

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