by Maura Jane Farrelly
Reporters, columnists, campaign strategists and admen have once again discovered the Catholic vote – and it isn't just because Catholics make up a quarter of the American electorate and are the largest religious group within America's fastest growing voting bloc, Latinos. It's because Catholics are some of the hardest cattle for our cowboy politicians to get their lassos around. They went for Reagan and Bush in the 1980s, Clinton in the 1990s, Gore in 2000, but then Bush in 2004 – when, ironically, the evangelical convert was running against the first Catholic to achieve a party nomination since 1960. In 2008, the Catholic vote went back to the Democrats, when 54 percent of Catholics cast their ballots for Barack Obama.
Obama's slim victory among Catholics was nothing to crow about – and in this sense, it was pretty typical of candidates' performances over the last 30 years. In only one of the last eight presidential elections did a candidate actually snag a sizable majority of Catholic voters: Clinton beat Dole by 16 points in 1996. In all of the other elections, however, Catholics were pretty evenly split, with the winning candidate (who also won the overall election seven out of the eight times) getting just a few percentage points more. Indeed, as Jim Arkedis recently noted in the New York Times, “perhaps no presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy has been able to unite this disparate flock” (Arkedis prefers the bird analogy, while I prefer the cow…).
This makes Catholics a fun group for reporters and columnists working the presidential beat to write about – and one that campaign strategists and political action committees feel they can't ignore. Catholics, after all, seem to be pretty good at picking presidential winners, and you never know which candidate they're going to pick.
Hence, in addition to the coverage of the “Vatileaks” scandal and the ongoing rift between the Holy See and American nuns (a rift that was in the headlines again this week, when the Vatican condemned a book on sexuality that was written by Sr. Margaret Farley at Yale University), we've seen a flurry of articles and editorials about the so-called “Catholic vote.” Ross Douthat at the New York Times and Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review have both assured us that the Catholic vote is very real, and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post has theorized that Obama is deliberately offending the Catholic vote in an effort to get young people to turn out for him in 2012, the way they did in 2008.
But I wonder if Michael O'Brien at MSNBC might not be on to something when he insists that the “Catholic vote” is a myth? He points to a recent Gallup poll that shows Mitt Romney and Barack Obama running neck-and-neck among Catholic voters and notes that the split among Catholics is pretty indistinguishable from the split among other voter groups, such as women, whites or even Protestants. In other words, like other constituencies, Catholics who describe themselves as “very religious” support Romney, while Catholics who describe themselves as “not especially religious” support Obama.
This raises the question of whether Republican strategists should be – or even are – targeting a “Catholic” vote, per se, when they draw voters' attention to the Obama administration's desire to see employers include coverage for contraception in their health insurance plans. One of the loudest groups to come out against the contraception mandate, after all, is the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Strategies aimed at the Catholic vote, therefore, may really be about rallying the Republican base.
But even if there isn't an actual “Catholic vote” out there, there are Catholics who vote – and who are strongly guided by their faith in their voting decisions. Because of this, I believe it is important for members of the news media to continue to explore the ways in which faith influences voting behavior within the largest single religious denomination in the United States. But the diversity within this single denomination must at all times be emphasized – and it would serve us all well if journalists eliminated the phrase “the Catholic vote” from their lexicon and spoke instead of “Catholic voters” in all their complexity.
Maura Jane Farrelly is assistant professor of American Studies and Director of the Journalism Program at Brandeis University. In the past, she was a reporter for Voice of America and Georgia Public Radio. Her first book, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity, was recently published by Oxford University Press.