National Catholic Register


The Catholic Voter ‘God Gap’



November 16-22, 2008 Issue | Posted 11/11/08 at 11:40 AM


WASHINGTON — Mass-going Catholics continue to have substantially different voting preferences from Catholics who are less active in their faith.

That’s one of the findings of exit polls of Catholics who voted in the Nov. 4 presidential election.

As might be expected in a race where a Democratic candidate won, in terms of attracting overall Catholic support, President-elect Barack Obama easily outperformed the losing efforts of Democratic candidates John Kerry and Al Gore in 2004 and 2000.

According to exit poll figures reported by CNN and the Pew Research Center, Obama outpolled John McCain 54% to 45% among Catholic voters. By comparison, Gore edged George W. Bush 50% to 47% in 2000, while Bush beat Kerry by a 52% to 47% margin in 2004.

But among those who attend Mass weekly, a different picture emerges.

McCain led Obama 50% to 49% among these active Catholics, compared to the 56% to 43% margin that Bush enjoyed over Kerry in 2004.

Latino Catholics

The exit poll data suggests that Obama’s biggest Catholic voter gains came among the Latino Catholic community.

Obama led McCain 66% to 32% overall among Latinos, a community that is predominantly Catholic. McCain’s 32% support among Latino voters represented a drop of 8% from the 40% of the Latino vote Bush captured in 2000.

Among only white Catholics who voted in 2008, McCain led Obama by a margin of 52% to 47%.

“Though precise figures are not available, early exit poll data suggests that Obama performed particularly well among Latino Catholics,” the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life commented in a Nov. 5 press release.

“Overall, the national exit poll shows that two-thirds of Latinos voted for Obama over McCain, a 13-point Democratic gain over estimates from the 2004 national exit poll,” the Pew Forum reported. “Meanwhile, Obama’s four-point gain among white Catholics [compared with their vote for Kerry] is smaller than the gain seen among Catholics overall. In fact, as in 2004, white Catholics once again favored the Republican candidate, though by a much smaller margin [13-point Republican advantage in 2004 vs. five-point advantage in 2008].”

At an Oct. 22 panel discussion at The Catholic University of America (CUA), Pew Research fellow Gregory Smith and CUA politics professor John White both said Latino Catholics generally do not make voting decisions on the basis of their religious beliefs, The Tower, CUA’s newspaper, reported Oct. 27.

Because of that, Smith and White said, only white Catholics are monitored when tracking Catholic voting patterns. Other ethnic groups, including Latinos, vote for reasons other than following Church teachings and usually support the Democratic Party, the two experts said.

Some commentators, such as editor in chief Stephen Waldman, have declared that the 2008 results indicate that in winning the presidency Obama substantially eroded the so-called “God Gap.”

The “God Gap” refers to the substantial lead Republicans have enjoyed in the last several American elections among voters who are most active in their religious faith — particularly among Evangelicals, but also among active Catholics.

But at best, the exit poll data only partially substantiates Waldman’s post-election claim of an “Incredible Shrinking God Gap.”

The Pew Research Center exit poll data shows Obama’s biggest gains actually came among voters who are not religiously affiliated at all. Among those voters, Democratic support surged by eight percentage points to an overwhelming 75% to 23% margin.

That’s double the four-point swing to the Democrats among all voters who attend church services at least once weekly. Those voters remained in the Republican camp, by a 55% to 43% overall margin.

The Kmiec Factor

But it’s clear that Obama had some success in making inroads among active Catholics. And that happened despite the fact that a large number of U.S. bishops stated before the election that voting for a candidate with a pro-abortion platform as extreme as Obama’s is incompatible with voting in accordance with a properly formed Catholic conscience.

Some commentators attributed the shift of Catholics to Obama to counterarguments made by pro-Obama Catholics such as Pepperdine University law professor Doug Kmiec, who argued that voting for Obama was not in any way incompatible with being a pro-life Catholic.

Kmiec’s arguments were denounced publicly by Church leaders such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Father Richard Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things magazine, for misrepresenting Church teachings regarding the responsibilities of Catholic voters.

“Polls of Catholic voters prior to the election suggested that Obama might win a majority of self-identified Catholic voters,” Deal Hudson, director of, said in a Nov. 5 commentary. “A more significant measure of Obama’s Catholic support will be the percentage of regular Mass-attending Catholics who voted for him.”

Added Hudson, “But regardless of the final statistics, it is clear that the Obama-Biden ticket received substantial help from Catholics working for parishes and chanceries, as well as a number of high-profile Catholic politicians and jurists.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.