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.

11.15.2013

"Being Catholic" Won't Win Much of the Catholic Vote Anymore


Next week it will be 50 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated. More than seven in ten Catholics alive today have no living memory of the first Catholic president. Will they ever see the "second" Catholic president in their lifetimes? Perhaps. There is no shortage of Catholics likely to run in 2016 from both parties. Will the fact that candidates are Catholic make those voters who share his or her faith more likely to vote for them? Probably not.

After the 2004 election Sr. Mary Bendya, Paul Perl, and I published an article entitled "Camelot Only Comes but Once" that outlined this reality. Now, nearly a decade later, I am still sure this is the case. A few weeks ago CARA conducted a national CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) asking respondents. "Does the fact that a presidential candidate is Catholic matter to you... 1) Not at all, 2) A little, 3) Somewhat, 4) Very much?" The sample included only working-age, self-identified Catholics (i.e., those ages 16 to 64). Thus, no one in the sample could have ever voted for JFK and the oldest respondents would have been 14 when he was assassinated.

Fifty-nine percent of Catholics surveyed said the fact that a candidate is Catholic does not matter "at all" to them. Nineteen percent said it matters "a little" and 16% said it matters "somewhat" to them. Only 6% said it matters "very much" (...note that this is consistent with 2012 results with many Catholic Republicans voting for Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, over other Catholic candidates in their party).


It is the case that the significance of a candidate's religion rises a bit among monthly and weekly Mass attenders. Majorities of these groups said a candidate's Catholicism is at least "a little" important to them. Yet, from other CCPs we know that 51% of all adult self-identified Catholics (ages 18 and older) attend Mass only a few times a year or less often. A Catholic candidate seeking an edge in the Catholic vote will likely have to look to people in the pews and will find a smaller pool of potential voters there.


There is one other demographic where a candidate's Catholicism "matters" and it's not one you would would likely first expect. A majority of Catholics ages 18 to 29 said the fact that a candidate is Catholic is at least "a little" important to them (25% "a little," 22% "somewhat," and 4% "very much"). It is also the case that Catholics in the Northeast were least likely to say a candidate's Catholicism matters to them (29% at least "a little").

Fifty years ago things were very different for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. JFK was a year away from competing for a second term. He was polling strong. October and November 1963 Gallup and Harris polls of the overall electorate had him leading George Romney (53% to 35%), Barry Goldwater (57% to 34%), Nelson Rockefeller (57% to 29%), and Richard Nixon (57% to 35%). JFK's presidential approval numbers were simply extraordinary. As shown below, he is the only modern president that never had an approval rating under 50% (his lowest was 56%). He also has the record for the best average approval rating at 70% positive.


Although many Catholic candidates may have had dreams of "reclaiming Camelot," most have never even made it to the nomination. Averaging the election outcome polls for Gallup (1952-2012), the American National Election Study (1952-2012), and media exit polls (1976-2012), we can see the difference between John F. Kennedy's success among Catholics and John Kerry's more meager totals (according to Gallup and ANES estimates Kerry won the Catholic vote. Exit polls give the lead to President Bush). 


It is amazing how Kennedy was able to capture 80% of the Catholic vote in 1960. He likely would have matched this again given his popularity and how well his former Vice President Lyndon Johnson did among Catholics in 1964. Since this time, Catholics have always been "in-play." Even in 2012, where President Obama won a majority nationally, he lost the Catholic vote to Gov. Romney in many key "blue" and swing states. This competitiveness will undoubtedly have reporters and pundits looking to the Catholic vote again in 2016. Catholic candidates will count on gaining the slightest of edges here. Yet, it appears very unlikely that a "Camelot" candidacy will ever "reappear."

There are moments in history that define generations—that become the most striking, shocking, or important thing they remember from their youth. For my parents' generation this was JFK's assassination (...for my generation it was likely the Challenger explosion and for young adults today it is undoubtedly 9/11). The polls in the wake of JFK's assassination record the sadness and disappointment of a nation. Fifty-five percent of Americans say they "found it more difficult to carry on" (NORC, Nov.-Dec. 1963). In the same survey, 49% said that hearing the news felt like learning of the death of a spouse, parent, child, or other relative. Fifty-two percent of Americans attended a religious service in the wake of the assassination. Thirty-eight percent of Americans had trouble sleeping after the funeral and the same percentage reported crying after the funeral. In the immediate aftermath only 24% thought the assassination was "the work of one man." A recent Associated Press poll (Apr. 2013) estimated that only 39% of Americans are "very" or "extremely" sure JFK was assassinated by one man today. For many, the questions and sadness remain even 50 years on...


JFK image courtesy of Mike Jahn.

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