When George W. Bush meets with the Pope Friday at the Vatican,
the third such visit of this president's term, it will be tempting
to see a non-Catholic president reaching out to Roman Catholic
voters as he runs for reelection.
Catholics represent nearly 23 percent of American voters; both
major presidential campaigns are ramping up their efforts to woo
Catholics, along with other faith groups. And with Democratic Sen.
John Kerry poised to become the first Catholic major-party nominee
since John F. Kennedy, the nexus of politics and Catholicism is
under the microscope to a degree unprecedented in more than 40
But a profound shift in voter behavior since the 1960 election
has rendered the old analysis meaningless. "There is no real
Catholic vote to speak of," says John Kenneth White, a political
scientist at Catholic University. "The real split in American
politics today is between those [of all faiths] who attend services
frequently and those who go seldom or not at all."
In 1960, when Kennedy was elected, the divide between Catholics
and white Protestants was real. Three-fourths of Catholics supported
Kennedy and three-fourths of white Protestants backed the Republican
nominee, Richard Nixon.
Today, non-Latino voters who identify themselves as Catholics -
without regard to frequency of church attendance - break down along
political lines that tend to mirror the electorate as a whole. When
Latino Catholics are factored in, the "Catholic vote" leans
Democratic in general and toward Kerry for president.
Even the stickiest of issues that go to the center of the
intersection of religion and politics show Catholic views virtually
identical to overall opinion. On abortion, 34 percent of Catholic
voters and 36 percent of all voters believe it should be "generally
available to those who want it," according to a new CBS News poll.
On the issue of whether it's "appropriate for political candidates
to talk about their religious beliefs as part of their political
campaigns," 49 percent of Catholic voters said it was, versus 50
percent of voters overall.
Bush's task and newest move
For Bush, the task of reaching "his" Catholic voters is easier;
Bush Catholics gather regularly in one place, either for mass or
other church functions. Kerry's Catholics are less likely to gather
From day one, the Bush White House has reached out to
conservative religious leaders as a core activity of its time in
office. Now that it's battling hard for a second term, the Bush team
is reaching out to religious voters so aggressively that
congregations could face challenges to their tax-exempt status.
On Tuesday, an e-mail from a Bush-Cheney campaign official in
Pennsylvania provided to reporters by Bush opponents demonstrated
this level of outreach. …