REFLECTION: The Catholic vote in 2016

reeseHeadshotWebby Thomas Reese, S.J., NCR

Now that the Iowa caucuses are over, attention turns to the primaries in both the Republican and Democratic parties beginning with New Hampshire. There has been much discussion of how evangelicals will vote in the Republican primaries and how women and minorities will vote in the Democratic primaries, but little has been said about Catholics.

election-2016E.J. Dionne is fond of saying that “there is no Catholic vote and it is important.” His point is that Catholics do not vote as a bloc. But they are important because they have voted for the winner of the popular vote in almost every presidential election since Roosevelt (they did not vote for Ike in 1952). We might modify Dionne’s saying to read “there is no Catholic vote and that is why it is important.”

Today the Catholic vote is divided into two major parts, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. Traditionally, white Catholics voted Democratic beginning in 1928 when Al Smith was pilloried by anti-Catholic bigots supporting the Republican candidate. The Great Depression and the New Deal solidified their support for the Democratic Party.

Today, however, the children and grandchildren of these working-class white Catholics are just as likely to vote Republican. Thanks to their parents, the GI Bill, and a prosperous economy, these children went to college and joined the professional and business classes. Their taxes went up with their incomes and they forgot their roots.

As a result, when politicians look at the Catholic vote they see two groups: the Hispanics, who are solidly Democratic because of the Republican demonization of immigrants, and white Catholics, made up of college-educated Catholics and a declining number of alienated blue-collar workers (the so-called Reagan Democrats)

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