Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


U.S. Catholics are Divided but Far from Politically “Realigned”

With election season over its time for the political science content on this blog to take a back seat for a bit (...until the 2014 midterms approach). In this final Election 2012 post I have to note some amusement with assumptions made about the U.S. political parties having set into “permanent” majority and minority statuses. Journalists and commentators have short memories. Political scientists know better. One of the best models for what we might expect in the future is in research conducted by two of my mentors Bernard Grofman and Thomas Brunell along with Samuel Merrill entitled, “Cycles in American National Electoral Politics, 1854-2006.” American politics is rarely, if ever, linear in its evolution. There are no “locks” on anything (…following 1960 and 1964 one could have easily predicted that Catholics would overwhelmingly vote Democrat in the future but reality didn’t pan out that way) and the parties have quite a knack for reinvention (...see any review of the history of the Democratic Party and you’ll know what I mean). In recent years, Americans have tended to favor divided government and it is uncommon for them to let one party control the presidency for more than two consecutive terms.

Despite some of the post-election rhetoric, the 2012 election cycle did not realign the U.S. party system generally or for Catholics more specifically. The figure below shows party identification of U.S. adult Catholics (i.e., the voting age population) in CARA Catholic Polls (CCP) fielded closest to a presidential election since 2000. The 2012 election represents a bit of a regression to the mean with the Democratic Party affiliation advantage over Republicans dropping 7 percentage points from +17 in 2008 to +10 percentage points, which is more consistent with 2000 and 2004. The Washington Post has a figure on how this same regression to the mean occurred among many sub-groups of voters in 2012 compared to 2008. 

Even factoring in party “leaners” does not significantly alter the overall Catholic partisan balance (...leaners are the most volatile group and often shift between parties or independent stances as issues and candidates change). 

Why am I amused by the notion of
“permanent” majorities being set in 2012? Because things could change quickly. Looking ahead, the 2014 election will be a decidedly lower turnout contest without the presidency on the ticket. This may favor Republicans again as it did in 2010 among the overall electorate and Catholic voters. Currently, Democrats have long odds on regaining the House (although this could change depending on how the fiscal cliff is resolved). The Republicans may even have a better than fair chance to make significant gains in the Senate given the distribution of races and recent electoral history accounting for the party of the incumbent president. If I were Sen. Harry Reid I would really think twice about weakening of the filibuster. He may need it.

Republicans are also likely to have more favorable odds in 2016 than they did in 2012 without having to face an incumbent ( of the reasons many Republicans sat on the bench during the 2012 primary season). Second terms can be a mine field. The president’s popular vote total and percentage declined from 2008 and his approval ratings are on a rather typical long-term downward trajectory that has been experienced by most post-World War II presidents (...even his post-election polls have shown a worse than average “bounce” in approval). This all comes at a time when presidents have traditionally started thinking about their legacy.
Historians and political scientists will pay close attention to unemployment and poverty rates, deficits and debt, as well as economic growth during his two terms. President Obama will also inevitably be compared to both Clinton and Reagan who were able to overcome and/or work with opposition from Congress. The resolution of the current taxes, budget, and deficit stalemate in Congress will be important not only for the perception of his effectiveness but also for its eventual policy outcomes. Will the economy improve, jobs grow, and the deficit be reduced? Those thinking of running for president as a Democrat in 2016 have their fingers crossed.
On the other side of the aisle I think the Republicans find themselves in a similar position to the Democrats in 2004. Following that loss, Democrat strategists Stanley Greenberg and Matt Hogan produced a paper entitled “Reclaiming the White Catholic Vote” as a road map to winning the presidency again. I would not doubt if somewhere Republican strategists were working on a similar type of paper now perhaps entitled “Making Gains among the Hispanic Catholic Vote.” Republicans already do well among Hispanic Evangelicals but would likely be unsuccessful in convincing Hispanic “Nones” to switch parties or votes. Catholics may represent their best chance at convincing more Hispanic voters to consider choosing a Republican in 2016. Yet, winning a sub-group of the Catholic vote for Republicans in a higher turnout presidential election is often like sailing into a headwind. As you can see in the table below, most sub-groups affiliate with or lean toward the Democrats with the exception of Catholics in rural areas, non-Hispanic whites, those with a college degree, those with an annual household income of $100,000 or more, and weekly Mass attenders.

Republicans would not need to win the votes of Hispanic Catholics outright, but gaining more votes from this sub-group would improve their odds—especially if these gains were made in key battleground states. Democrats have one huge unknown on their side. Will Hillary Clinton run in 2016? If she does, I think the odds for Republicans become decidedly worse. Catholic Democrats often favored her over the then Sen. Obama in the 2008 primaries. Regardless of what either party does in the next four years I expect the vote of Catholics to continue to be divided and a bellwether for the larger electorate.

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