The Diversity of the ‘Catholic Vote’ and What It Could Mean in 2020

A more in-depth look at some of the key findings of the recent EWTN/RealClear Politics poll of Catholic voters.

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A recent poll by EWTN and RealClear Politics has shed some light on the question of how those who identify as Catholic vote, to what extent self-identified Catholics grasp key Church teachings, and what issues matter to them in the voting booth. It raises the question of whether there is a “Catholic vote” and what that could mean ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The poll surveyed 2,055 U.S. registered voters that included an oversample of 1,223 voters who self-identified as Catholic. Deep divisions between self-identified Catholics generally and more devout or practicing Catholics, defined by mass attendance and acceptance of Church teaching, were highlighted by certain questions.


Gaps Between More and Less Devout Catholics

Among those who identified as Catholic, just 39% attended Mass weekly or more (deliberately missing Sunday Mass is a mortal sin, according to Church teaching); and just 17% of the self-identified Catholics accepted “all” Church teachings, while 41% accepted “most” Church teachings.

The survey found that just 66% of Catholics who accept all or most Church teachings believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — a teaching that is central to the Catholic faith.

However, an analysis by the Register found that 84% of those who attend Mass at least weekly and accept “all” Church teachings believe in the Real Presence, as do 70% of those who are weekly Mass attendees and accept “most” Church teaching.

According to analysis by Catholic News Agency, the Catholics who say they accept “all” Church teachings are more likely to vote to re-elect President Donald Trump in the upcoming 2020 election compared to Catholics who accept less of the Church’s teachings. CNA noted that “58% of Catholics who say they accept all Church teaching also said they are ‘sure to vote’ for Donald Trump in 2020, compared to 34% of all Catholics and 32% of respondents overall who gave the same answer.”

They added, “These voters favored Trump over Joe Biden by 18 percentage points, over Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders by 25 percentage points, and over Pete Buttigieg by 26 percentage points.”

This is in contrast to the opinion of Catholics overall, where Trump trails every 2020 Democratic candidate. Those voters favor Sanders over Trump by 15 percentage points, Biden over Trump by 13 percentage points, and Warren over Trump by eight percentage points.


Issues of Importance

When it comes to some key issues, those who attend Mass weekly or more and accept “all” of the Church’s teachings also have different priorities than self-identified Catholics overall.

When asked what impact it would have if a candidate held a different view on certain issues, the three “deal breaker” issues for Catholics overall were gun control — 47% called it a deal breaker if there was disagreement on it — followed by health care and immigration (tied at 46%) and then late-term abortion (45%). As for same-sex “marriage,” 28% of Catholics overall said it would be a deal breaker for a candidate to have a different stance on that issue.

However, the Register found that for those who attended Mass at least weekly and accept “all” of the Church’s teachings, the “deal breaker” issue is late-term abortion (58%), followed by gun control (50%) and then abortion (49%). On the same-sex “marriage” issue, 29% viewed it as a “deal breaker.”


Not a Monolith

Veteran Church analyst George Weigel commented to the Register on the poll’s findings, concluding that “there certainly is no monolithic ‘Catholic vote.’”

“A voter who self-identifies as ‘Catholic’ but rarely steps inside a church isn’t really a ‘Catholic voter,’” Weigel said. “For decades now, regularly practicing non-Hispanic Catholics have skewed heavily Republican in their voting and rarely practicing Catholics skew heavily Democratic. The curve tends to follow practice on down the scale and doesn’t seem to be too much affected by issues, i.e., I don’t think you’re going to find a whole lot of rarely practicing, pro-life but self-identified Catholics voting for Republicans.”

Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987, agreed with Weigel’s assessment regarding the nonexistence of a monolithic “Catholic vote.”

“There is no Catholic vote,” Shaw told the Register. “There are Catholics who vote, but that’s something quite different. The differences in voting patterns between Catholics who attend Mass regularly and Catholics who don’t are of course real and significant, but there is enough diversity within each group that bloc voting can be ruled out. If there ever was such a thing as a Catholic vote, it disappeared a half-century or more ago.”
Shaw also noted that “there has been a slow, irregular shift of Catholics toward the Republicans and away from the Democrats extending back to the Eisenhower years. On the whole, too, Catholics tend to vote like other members of their socioeconomic group. And, with a few exceptions, in presidential elections a majority of Catholics has for many years generally backed the winner.”


The ‘Christian Vote’?

However, John Della Volpe, polling director of RealClear Opinion Research, contended on EWTN News Nightly that there is “absolutely” a Catholic vote and called it “one of the most critical building blocks, I think, of any winning coalition, in fact, for most elections.”

“Over the last 50 years or so, the one group that has been most predictive of the popular-vote winner has been Catholics, so understanding, tuning in to what Catholics think about politically is critical for any successful campaign, especially in a general election,” Della Volpe explained.

“There are constituencies within that voter bloc, as well,” he acknowledged, “so it’s not a monolith, but there is most certainly a Catholic vote. That vote in 2016 mirrored the popular vote almost perfectly.”

Carl Cannon, the RealClear Politics Washington bureau chief, said that it might be time to pay more attention to the voting habits of devout Catholics and devout Protestants combined, as they mirror each other.

“Devout Catholics are very much still with this president and with the Republican Party. They’re with Donald J. Trump,” Cannon noted on News Nightly. “This poll shows it’s the mirror image of what’s going on in the evangelical, in the Protestant church, which is where the mainstream Protestants and the younger Protestants are less likely to be Republicans, but evangelical Christians who are devout, who go to church regularly or identify themselves as evangelicals [are Republicans].”

“They’re a powerful voting bloc, if you combine them with these devout Catholics who go to Mass once a week or more; now you’re talking about a coalition,” Cannon said. “Maybe we ought to be talking about the Christian vote in journalism and in political science because that’s the thing that most struck me about this.”


Generational Differences

In addition to the gaps between practicing and less observant Catholics, the poll found that younger Catholic voters (ages 18-34) are more politically liberal, while older Catholics (55 and older) are more conservative. Just 34% of young Catholics under the age of 35 approve of Trump’s job performance, while 55% of older Catholics approve of Trump’s performance.

The poll also found that less than half (48%) of younger Catholics say they accept all (16%) or most (32%) of the Church’s teachings. In comparison, 69% of Catholics 55 years or older responded that they accept all or most Church doctrine.

Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum (CWF), told the Register that one “important takeaway from this polling is that it highlights the wide gap in views (and religiosity) between young and older Catholics.” 

“In my view, this reflects the fact that most (nearly nine out of 10) Catholic children do not receive a Catholic education,” Hasson stated. “As the culture shifted dramatically away from traditional moral values that align with our faith, the public schools shifted, too. The change has been dramatic in the past five years especially, affecting our youngest Catholic voters. They increasingly absorb beliefs, particularly about sexuality and marriage, that are not compatible with the Catholic faith.” 

Hasson said that without Catholic education, children are taught “to turn to science and technology for answers — faith is no longer the context within which they wrestle with questions of fairness, justice and truth.” 

“It’s hard to make up for that in an hour of religious education a week, even if a child comes from a Mass-attending family,” she said. “All of this is having an effect on younger Catholics — and we will see the effects increasingly in their beliefs and their voting patterns.”


‘Catechetical Disaster’

One clear area to begin with Catholic education is belief in the Real Presence, which only 66% of self-identified Catholics who accepted all or most Church teachings affirmed.

Russell Shaw recalled a similar poll finding from 1995 and argued that “it is high time to face the fact that the teaching of the Church on this and many other matters is simply not being presented systematically and persuasively to very many Catholics. As long as that remains the case, we are going to continue to get poll numbers like this — and, of course, to wring our hands piously when we do.”

Weigel said in response to that finding that “catechetical preaching has to be rediscovered in the Church, after the catechetical disaster of the immediate post-Vatican II decades.”

Hasson said the poll finding was “a reminder that our example matters, too — do we show reverence inside the Church? It’s a teaching moment whenever people gather for Mass, an opportunity to remind them that we are in God’s presence and what happens in the Eucharistic celebration.” 

She added that it is “also a reminder that, given the culture and general lack of catechesis, priests and catechists cannot assume that even well-intentioned people know and understand what the Church teaches. We need to propose and re-propose the Church’s teachings to break through the noise of the culture and the ‘experts of the day’ on social media.” 

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.